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Oakwood Park Grammar School

How did we become involved with the Thinking Schools Network?

We initially became involved in the accreditation process in 2007 when our new Head Teacher spotted an ad in the TES. Kestrel Education and the University of Exeter were working together to encourage schools to take a new approach to teaching and learning, and we were very interested in this initiative.

At that time, we were achieving good grades at Key Stage 4. However, it was felt that we were coasting. Our students managed to get good GCSE grades but many of them lacked the independent study skills to enable them to reach their full potential when they went on to study for their A Levels. Key Stage 5, therefore, was proving to be more of a challenge than it should have been, considering the students’ achievements at GCSE. The idea of teaching our students how to think, thus giving them a lifelong skill that could be used wherever their life choices took them, was exciting. Teaching children how to think is possibly one of the most important tasks of any education system.

How did we develop our action plan, and what support did we receive from Kestrel?

Kestrel met with the SMT for a day in May 2007. We formed an action plan towards achieving our ultimate goal of becoming a Thinking School. Accreditation was important as it gave us a tangible end point with set criteria that we could measure our progress against. The initial consultation gave us many ideas to work with for the rest of that summer term. The most important were:

  • Incorporating into the School Improvement Plan (SIP) the aim of achieving accreditation as a Thinking School.
  • Forming a Thinking Skills Drive Team (TSDT) comprising eleven enthusiastic teachers from the majority of departments. These teachers had a variety of different backgrounds and experiences but were all selected for their willingness to experiment with their pedagogy.
  • Establishing a shared vocabulary, so that every member of the school could discuss teaching and learning using Thinking Skills.
  • Appointing a Thinking Skills Co-Ordinator. As co-ordinator, I was given a 6 week sabbatical to extend my knowledge of Thinking Skills by research and visits to workshops and other schools throughout the country. This made use of gained time when most of my classes were on study leave.
  • Arranging for the TSDT to have a short session with a consultant from Kestrel, where we were all given a different thinking skill to research and try in our classes. This was followed up by another short session where we discussed experiences of our action research, leading to a decision about which aspects of thinking skills we would be taking forward to introduce to the whole school. We decided to focus on Thinking Maps, Thinking Hats, and the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and these formed the basis of our ‘Thinking Toolbox’.

How did we put our plans into action?

The thinking skills chosen were felt to be most appropriate to our students and could be most usefully used in our current curriculum. This process was followed by an intensive period of training for the TSDT. I had been trained as a trainer for Thinking Maps©, another member trained in Thinking Hats and another researched the use of questioning using Bloom’s Taxonomy. We presented our findings and plans to the whole staff during a Development Day at the beginning of the Autumn Term in 2007.

So far, the process had been exciting and we had only involved staff who were committed to the process. During my research I had come across the idea of training the whole school using a ‘bottom-up’ process rather than the normal ‘top-down’ approach, where teachers were trained first. Having a 9 day time-table with every 10th day being available for ‘Enrichment’ allowed the TSDT to train the students in the use of the chosen skills from our ‘Thinking Toolbox’, and each year group had a whole days training over the course of the academic year. Students were then encouraged to use their new skills across the curriculum. Teachers also had in-house training as part of our twilight CPD programme. Staff and students were initially encouraged to be inventive in their use with competitions and displays around school. Each classroom was provided with posters to remind everyone of how they could be used in everyday learning. The TSDT continued their own training in Thinking Skills by attending various courses and conferences throughout the year. The ‘bottom-up’ training proved to be a very useful tool. Staff who were initially sceptical at first were enthused by the students, and coaching was provided by departmental TSDT members to help put the Thinking Skills into context in specific subject lessons. This holistic approach meant that, by the time Ofsted came for a subject inspection in February 2008, they were able to get convincing answers from randomly selected boys to specific questions about how students were using their Thinking Skills.

In September 2008, the curriculum for Key Stage 3 changed to incorporate Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS). We decided that we as well as continuing what was already in place for the older year groups, we would have three one-hour lessons a fortnight for the incoming Year 7s to incorporate Thinking Skills, PHSE and Learning to Learn. A member of the TSDT taught all the Thinking Skills elements of this programme. Form tutors taught the other two elements using the Thinking Skills that the Year 7s were familiar with in order to consolidate their knowledge. All staff were made aware of which Thinking Skill was currently being taught to this year group so that lessons could be adapted accordingly. Newly appointed staff had opportunities for in-house CPD delivered by the TSDT. A one-day Ofsted inspection in November 2008 again noted the school’s success in emphasising thinking and learning skills.

The wider community were involved in evenings showcasing what was happening in school, culminating in a Thinking Skills Carnival just prior to the successful accreditation visit in May 2009 by Emeritus Professor Bob Burden from the University of Exeter.

What have we learnt so far?

2009 A Level results were our best ever. It is difficult to say that this is only down to the use of thinking skills. Perhaps one of the most important effects throughout the school has been staff rethinking pedagogy and the impact that their teaching has on students’ learning. Accreditation made us focus on how we taught.

We also experienced some unexpected outcomes. We were surprised at how radically a few committed teachers can change the way an entire school teaches. We were also surprised by how successful training students before teachers was. The 'bottom-up' approach meant that sceptical teachers struggled to remain unenthused when the boys were so motivated. Another positive outcome was how well the whole school worked together as a team. It reminded us how innovative we could be, whilst still striving for increasingly better exam results. Support for what we had done come unexpectedly from a sixth-former who had just joined the school in September 2007, commenting on how learning about Thinking Maps was the best thing he had ever been taught. Finally, we were delighted by how open and friendly other schools in the network were, in sharing their experiences.

How will we develop our work in the future?

Possibly the most difficult part of the whole process lies ahead. Once accreditation was achieved and we had congratulated ourselves (we were the second secondary school in the country to achieve this status), we had to decide how to develop the work further. We are continuing PLTS lessons for new Year 7s using newly appointed staff with an experienced TSDT member overseeing training. This means that new staff will be quickly trained in the delivery and use of Thinking Skills.

Our main focus over the next two years is on developing a bespoke qualification at KS4 in Thinking Skills, in partnership with Kestrel and the University of Exeter. This will be part of a package for our new 3 year KS4 to develop a more holistic learning experience that will go beyond the prescribed curriculum.

Lynn Western
Thinking Skills Co-Ordinator
Oakwood Park School

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