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Christ the King Catholic Primary School: Our Thinking Journey

Christ the King Catholic Primary School was opened in 1969 as a voluntary-aided day school established under the trusteeship of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff. The school is maintained by the local education authority which is the Cardiff County Council. It is designated a primary school (i.e. for rising five year olds to pupils of eleven plus) and is co-educational.

The school serves an established residential area within North Cardiff, including the Parishes of Christ the King, St Teilo’s, St Brigid’s and St Paul’s. The pupils come from a wide area of North Cardiff from a range of housing. Most pupils come from homes which are neither very affluent or nor very disadvantaged, with 4% of pupils claiming free school meals. The school currently caters for 216 full-time boys and girls, taught in seven classes. At present one pupil is in receipt of a statement of educational need. However, 14% of pupils are identified as needing additional support, with 12% on school action and 2% on school action plus. Just over 9% of pupils speak English as an additional language.

Why did we become involved with the Thinking Schools Network?

We initially began our journey before working with Kestrel and Exeter University, in response to our priority of developing our practice to provide our more able and talented pupils with appropriate, challenging opportunities. During this time, our school undertook several action research projects which gave insight into our teaching and the strategies that we could use to enhance our pupils’ learning. We were keen to ensure that any strategies we developed were inclusive and benefited all pupils. We also wanted our pupils to become more engaged and involved in their own learning.

Although our understandings were translated into classroom practice, with teachers using a variety of strategies, our approach was too haphazard; we had plenty of ideas but no cohesive practice. Different strategies were being used in different classes and situated in different subject domains rather than as generic strategies that could be applied across the curriculum. As a result, our aims and plans were not realised. The work we had undertaken had helped develop our own understanding, but this had led to a range of disparate strategies that had little impact on our teaching and pupils’ learning.

It was clear that as we did not have a shared pedagogical understanding of why we were engaging in these strategies, we were using the strategies either to support particular activities or as an end in themselves rather than as effective tools to develop the underlying thinking processes of the child working across the curriculum. We may have felt that we were engaged in developing thinking to improve effective learning, but in reality we were tinkering about at the edges.

What we needed was a whole school approach with a shared understanding of why we were using a particular strategy. It was at this point that we came across Kestrel and their training in David Hyerle’s eight Thinking Maps. Here was a dynamic tool that was based on a clear conceptual framework, that could be used by any age group, was cross curricular and perhaps most importantly for our staff at that time, was a tool that they could see immediately would benefit their teaching and their pupils’ learning.

How did we develop our action plan?

Through working with Kestrel we decided that, as a small school, our Drive Team would be our Senior Learning Team. However, as our development plans were cross-referenced to subject development plans and these became part of performance management objectives, all staff had shared responsibility and leadership in their particular areas for the development of thinking skills.

Our journey towards becoming a Thinking School began with our first whole school training in David Hyerle’s thinking maps. By using the maps the Thinking Maps strategy, pupils, staff, governors and parents began to share a language that enabled thinking for learning to effectively, consistently and progressively take place. It was because of this training and the subsequent implementation that we began to develop our shared understandings, our mutual commitment and rationale which have proved to be so powerful.

As a school we developed our Thinking Policy, cross referenced to subject specific policies - the school’s Learning and Teaching Policy and Assessment Policy. Our thinking policy is reviewed every year in the light of our developing understanding. The strategies that staff are using are highlighted in Schemes of Work and weekly planning.

From the start Governors were engaged in the developed rationale for our actions through visits to our school, training and termly reports. Parents are also kept informed and encouraged to become part of the development process through weekly newsletters, termly curriculum information, school prospectus, leaflets, curriculum meetings and our web-site. During this time, the whole school community was involved in the review of the Mission and Vision Statement for our school. Our priority to develop children’s thinking and positive attitudes to life-long learning is now part of our Mission Statement.

How did we put our plans into action?

Throughout our journey, we have always had a clear direction of what type of learning community we wanted our school to become, as well as plans of what we wanted to achieve. However, like all plans, they were frequently amended. For example, when we first introduced David Hyerle’s Maps, we had planned for them to be embedded in our school after a year. In reality, we found that after a year, although our staff were using them with confidence in their teaching and when directing their pupils, an insufficient number of pupils were using the maps independently to support their own learning. It took us two years to fully embed the maps. This reminded us that real transformation always takes longer than you expect and although this may be frustrating this process cannot be rushed.

Sometimes what we achieved was not only the result of a departure from the planned direction at the start of the year, but as a result of the unexpected. As a consequence of all staff taking part in training at the same time and having joint shared responsibility for the implementation of the strategy, honest and open communication between staff developed, enabling us to share our thinking about our own growing practice and learn from each other. What surprised us most was the impact that these strategies had on our teaching styles and our expectations for pupil involvement. We soon realised that when using a strategy such as Thinking Maps we could no longer teach the way we use to. Almost imperceptibly we were changing our teaching style, something that we had never anticipated. The pupils became increasingly more involved in their learning with teachers becoming more confident in relinquishing their control, giving greater choices to our students. This ‘growth mindset’, an outcome of our initial focus on Thinking Maps, made the implementation of subsequent strategies such as P4C, Habits of Mind, Thinking Hats, Bloom’s Taxonomy, TASC Wheel etc, which complemented and dovetailed into our existing strategies, a much more straightforward process.

What support did we receive from Kestrel and Exeter University?

Throughout our journey, Kestrel has not only supplied the expertise to help our school move forward, but also enabled us to join a network of other schools across the country to meet and share our practice, our difficulties and successes. This mutual support from other professionals has proved to be essential for our continuing development. Working with other schools through the Network has also helped to train new staff through the sharing of training events.

Using the Thinking Schools Framework from Exeter University gave us a very valuable guide that helped us to ensure that our quantifiable and qualitative data for monitoring and evaluating the impact of the strategies was authentic. It also ensured that, as we were growing into a Thinking School, we shared our understandings with our wider community. Having Professor Bob Burden visit our school was a great privilege, and his observations and feed back as to how we could move forward were indispensable. Gaining Thinking School status from Exeter University was celebrated by our whole school community as a milestone along our way.

What we have learnt so far?

By far the most rewarding aspect is the impact on our pupils’ attitudes towards learning, on their motivation and their growing sense of themselves as learners. We are constantly amazed by their sharing of their thinking and no longer make assumptions about pupils’ capacities to learn. It is the pupils, more than any other members of our community who ensure that we continue to develop our practice and understandings so that together we continue to build an effective learning community.

Last year our school was inspected. We were delighted that the findings of the inspection team gave our school Grade 1 in all Key Questions, but we were just as pleased by their acknowledgement that the strategies we use to develop thinking were effective and fundamental to pupils’ achievements. Some comments they made were:

‘Thinking skills support pupils’ understanding of the purpose of assessment….. The use of strategies to develop thinking is outstanding. Teachers’ questioning is highly skilled. Teachers’ use of strategies such as Q Matrix and Bloom’s taxonomy ensure high levels of questioning…. Through strategies, such as ‘no-hands-up’, pupils’ interest and motivation is sustained. Questioning allows teachers to ascertain prior knowledge and also develops pupils’ higher order thinking…. Through strategies such as Habits of Mind pupils become more independent in their learning and surer of how to improve the way they work. Also, more able children become more challenged in their learning.’

How will we develop our work in the future?

Gaining Thinking School Accreditation from Exeter University was a landmark on our journey. It is not our destination. We continue to develop our understanding of the strategies we use. Our commitment to continue to develop the thinking of pupils and staff is an integral part of who and what we are as a school. With this commitment comes the understanding that our school has to ensure that sufficient time is given and that the finance is made available to fund this. For our school, developing thinking for learning is a priority amongst all the other competing imperatives that put pressure upon our school resources.

We continually expand our expertise by providing professional development in the effective use of thinking strategies as a priority in the CPD of all staff. The strategies we use to develop thinking and the rationale that underpin these strategies are part of the induction process for all staff and governors. Staff are also keen to gain accreditation; for example, we have a member of staff who is undertaking Level 2 Philosophy for Children, which can become part of Masters-level study.

Looking back over the years, one thing is certain; once a school is committed to begin their thinking journey, that school will never be the same again. Our journey, so far, has been stimulating and inspiring for all involved and has led to a much greater collaboration between all staff and pupils. As a headteacher it has ensured that my priority is centred on developing teaching and learning. Our school is concerned about developing lifelong skills; as the old saying goes, ‘Give pupils a thought and they will learn for a day. Teach them to think and they will learn for life.’

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