Space Out or Be Square

First day of school…new exercise books – reverently handed-out, carefully named. Each teacher makes their expectations very clear regarding the ‘presentation of learning’ (or of their ‘teaching’).

Thirty years later, things have changed, haven’t they? But as I’m writing this, a shifty-looking pile of Maths books sits on the shelf in my classroom and I wonder how much change there’s been, really. There are 2700 squares on each double page of those Maths books. My pupils are seven.

So…the expectation that pupils present their learning ‘in the abstract’, starts the year off; ‘One digit in one square’. All those squares to fill, too. A whole book of ‘em. It’s literally an eye-blurring mass of rigidness.

Fortunately, that pile of books has accepted its recent demotion to the more permanent position of ‘on the shelf’. We now, far more regularly, explore our learning on the floor tiles with whiteboard pens. Pupils are ‘on the move’ – we ‘walk and talk’. We draw the problem, build it, explain it, change it and reflect. We can all now, for the first time, see each other’s thinking clearly. We have the space to explore and present learning in a far more brain-friendly way. We capture it when appropriate. And nobody ever asks, ‘Can we write in our books, today?’ Seems silly to expect pupils to constantly structure the presentation of their learning within squares, and in books that aren’t generally shared.

It doesn’t add up – does it?

We know our kids, don’t we?

I’ve been reflecting on yesterday’s MOOC with George Couros, Katie Martin and Sarah Thomas. I found myself nodding along to much of what was said but in particular, there was a moment when George questioned the idea of measuring the impact of an innovative approach to learning. Agreed. We don’t need to, do we?

To ‘measure formally’ seems to be etched deeply into our thinking; it’s what we’ve always done – and I get it – sort of. As teachers, we have a responsibility, at the very least, to consider whether what we’re doing is making a difference and formal measuring seems to be the only completely acceptable method. Accountability. ‘Proof’.

The concept of measuring however, is a bit like the rather noisy and out-spoken Party-Pooper of Good Ideas, Creativity and Innovation – it’ll stick its oar in and spoil everything.

‘How will we know this approach is having an impact on learning if we don’t somehow measure it?’

Unfortunately, even if this question doesn’t get asked, the very thought that it might be, is often enough to prevent teachers from trying something new. It’s the spanner in the works before the ‘works’ have even got going. But – if the ‘measure’ is kept at bay, at least for a while, teachers just might feel inclined to give something new, a go. 

There is perhaps, another side to this, too. Yes – we know our kids – but does knowing that there will be data generated and recorded from current methods of measuring / summative testing, somehow prevent us from getting to know them better? If we remove the measure, would we have to become more accountable? Would they? If we couldn’t rely on the formal measure, would we naturally find ourselves talking to our kids more? Would we think more carefully about the questions we ask? Would they learn to think more carefully about their responses? Would learning-conversations deepen? Would we create new and innovative opportunities to better demonstrate learning?

I do realise that removing the formal measure, to some, might represent an ‘Andy Dufresne’ moment (the bit in Shawshank Redemption when he’s dug himself out – finally – arms stretched up in rainy liberation) – a little bit risky. But perhaps it could also represent an opportunity to really get to know our kids and realign what goes on in classrooms – away from measuring – towards learning.




Process and Parachutes

So, we’ve just finished what turned out to be a good two weeks of ‘The Writing Process’. Our current topic is ‘Rainforests’ and Caspar the Caterpillar needed to make his way up through the different layers so that he could make his cocoon on the highest leaf, of the tallest tree in the emergent layer…


The intention was to incorporate this context (we’d been learning how to use a simile in our written description) across the the year-group and, if all went to plan, use pupils’ writing for moderation purposes.

The process was longer than any of us had anticipated. But – we got so much out of it. I think this was because we concentrated on the process rather than the outcome; we placed a much higher value on reflection, editing and improving, for example, than I think any of us had done before. We pushed through and made the process matter.

On the back of this, and in reflective discussions with colleagues, I realised how vital this journey is. It seems such a simple, obvious realisation – and it served as a powerful reminder that very few of us can create a piece of writing that arrives fully formed, out of the sky. So why do we test children’s ability to write in such clinical, cold conditions?

So, over pizza and coffee at a local Brunei cafe, I did a doodle… I guess that if you did some research, you may find somebody, somewhere who had a fluke, miracle-landing when their parachute failed, and who managed to survive; and there might be the odd child who can sit down and simply ‘write’ – but the rest of us need to officially and purposefully go through the process. Testing young children’s ability to write in the absence of this interactive, ‘human’ and often messy process – testing them in a way that’s completely alien to how they’ve been learning – seems so unfair. It’s a bit like jumping without a parachute; you might survive – just – but someone’s gonna have to pick up the pieces.

Embracing Change

This got me thinking; so here goes – my first blog.


I get bored easily. Honestly, I really don’t know how anyone can pull out the same old plans and resources year after year and not lose the will… but hey, that’s just me. Finding alternative ways to optimize learning – ways that work – isn’t always easy either and if you do find something that suits, to actually implement it and cause positive change – well, that can be a little more complicated.

So, how could I make positive changes? How could I make what we were already doing more interesting? How could I better engage me?

And then, thanks to Paul Bannister, I read John Spencer and AJ Juliani’s ‘LAUNCH’. Great. I tweaked the process slightly – I’m a Year 3 teacher – my students are seven years old and wide-eyed when they come to me and I was aware that they might find this process unfamiliar and daunting. But…wouldn’t it be great to get my students ‘buzzing’ with questions about something with which they’d been presented? For them to be emotionally involved with a situation? To have more freedom to determine what they would learn, without too much ‘traditional-teacher’ input from me? Flexibility. Structure. Potential for creativity. We were about to embark on our ‘Volcanoes’ topic… so we gave it a go.

Our stimulus for the ‘L’ phase (Look, Listen, Learn) was a clip – a time-lapsed, animated simulation of Mount Vesuvius erupting and destroying Pompeii; it was unnarrated – students didn’t necessarily know what was happening and knew nothing of Pompeii at this stage – it was a little frightening – clouds of ash billowed – thick, black dust covered the buildings – a dog barked and then became eerily silent…

A barrage of questions followed (‘A’ phase – Ask loads of questions): What happened? Why didn’t the dog run away? What happened to the buildings? Was it an earthquake? Why would people live in such a dangerous place? Is this real? Could this happen to us? These were great questions and some of them couldn’t be Googled – even better. These questions required thinking on a deeper level as well as some fairly philosophical reasoning. Our school has timetabled P4C sessions (Philosophy for Children) and the skills developed here, came in handy.

The next step then, was to ‘Understand’. We wanted answers to our questions. We borrowed a stack of books from the library and we booked the computer suite and carried out some ‘narrowed’ internet research. I wish I could have captured their amazement and wonder through this process – excited children sharing what they’d just learned with each other and with me, not only about Pompeii and Vesuvius but about other volcanoes. Suddenly, we were learning what ‘The Ring of Fire’ was, (‘I need an atlas!’) and terms like ‘viscous’ and ‘non-viscous’, magma chambers, shield volcanoes as well as countless other facts and figures – curiosity and serendipitous learning at its best.

We spoke to an expert, having previously formulated ‘good’ questions – we listened, we watched, we were brave enough to ask our questions in a state-of-the art lecture theatre. We kept reading and some of us went home to find out more. Of course, formative assessment played an important role up until this point; I needed to make sure that specific curriculum objectives had been met before moving on and tried to make sure any ‘gaps’ were filled.

‘N’ was next – we called this phase the ‘Now what?’ phase. I wanted them to be able to demonstrate their learning in some way; ‘How are we going to get what’s in our heads, into somebody else’s?’ As a class, and with a little guidance, we settled on the idea of writing an ‘information book in story-space’. Many students had read or were reading Jeff Kinney’s ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’. We adapted this idea to ‘Chad, Diary of a Lava Lad’; Chad was our volcanic adventurer and he would help demonstrate our learning.

Again, as a class, we generated a Success Criteria – what did we need in our book? What facts? Diagrams? Keywords? What did we need to remember about writing sentences? We thought about presentation; we looked at Jeff Kinney’s layout and discussed its simplicity. And then we began creating (‘C’). Our first draft was on A3 paper; there was no specified template – students were able to take ownership of their presentation without any constraints from me or my ideas of ‘how it should look’, or what they should write down first. Potentially, some students might need some structure here but I found that they enjoyed the freedom of working it out themselves.

Naturally, students began folding their paper to represent a book format; some drew lines to write on, they sketched, they scribbled, they drew arrows to show where they wanted to move their sentences or paragraphs. They learned the meaning of ‘first draft’ and ‘second draft’ – ‘draft’ became a much-used word in our classroom. It amazed me how accepting they were of this process – they began taking pride in whichever ‘draft’ they were working on, making improvements and suggesting changes – at their own pace. If somebody needed to find out more during this stage – they did – information was always accessible.

It became increasingly exciting to guide them through the next step. We set up a Google Doc each and this was shared with me so feedback could be immediate – students began acknowledging comments and suggesting improvements (‘H’ How can we make this better?) – we typed, we checked, we reflected, typed some more, made some changes – we inserted images or left space for our own illustrations. We referred back to the Success Criteria – had we missed anything? Did we need to add anything to our Success Criteria?

Illustrating their books, for some students, was the highlight of the whole process. There were a few great moments for me, too. One of my students printed a page of text having left enough space for an illustration – which she then did. Quickly.

Initially, she was happy with her efforts – it was basic but she felt she’d done enough – I could tell she just wanted to get her book finished. We had a chat. We considered Googling ‘how to draw a volcano’ – she analysed images, watched a tutorial and then applied this learning to her own illustration. The change was dramatic – I still look at them sometimes and think, ‘…and these are done by Year 3 children!’ What was most memorable though, was that ‘light-bulb’ moment when she realised, ‘Hey – I can do better than this!’ It was contagious – when my other students saw the improvements she had made, they too, raised their own expectations. Magic.

We worked hard on our books; a few found it difficult to keep going, especially when they got to that stage when they were ‘so close’ to finishing. We had to push through at times but we did get there – all of us. I had their books bound and we read each other’s… ‘This illustration is really good…’ and, ‘He’s explained this clearly…’ and, ‘Are you sure that’s a cone volcano?’ We reflected on the whole process, making a huge ‘visual’ of the steps we went through, including comments and photos of them, proudly holding up their books.

We were fortunate to have a whole term for this learning process. Initially, we just used our ‘Humanities’ time but as the term progressed, using timetabled English lessons helped create momentum and continuity. Throughout, I kept thinking, ‘I could plan Science units around this process…’ and have since – and they’ve worked! The level of engagement has improved and I know that students appreciate the sense of ownership they have over their learning.

Sometimes, it did feel a little ‘messy’ – in order to allow students more freedom, I found myself having to ‘let go’, too – this wasn’t how I’d been trained; I would have struggled to produce a ‘traditional’ lesson plan for this, for example – and I made a point to keep breathing at times – but I guess all this represented a shift in practice from me as ‘teacher’, to me as ‘facilitator’. Happy with that.

For a first attempt, I don’t think we did too badly; next time, I certainly would widen their audience and LAUNCH the whole thing properly – one of my students suggested we put our books in the library but we just ran out of time and I wanted them to take them home before the end of term. Every day, they’d ask, ‘Can we take our books home today…please?’ They just wanted to share them with the people who mattered most and I just couldn’t hang on to them…but I did make a few copies, not only to inspire my next year’s students (hopefully!) but also, because they represent a learning process which we all enjoyed.

For me, the best bit was that I could actually see attitudes changing.
And that was amazing.