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Rochester Grammar School - How we became a Thinking School

It is with great pride that we presented our portfolio of evidence to the Cognitive Education Centre at Exeter University in December 2009. The Rochester Grammar School is a selective girls’ grammar school in Medway – an area with its fair share of socio-economic issues. We have a mixed 6th Form. In 2008 the school was judged to be outstanding in all areas by OFSTED.

Why did we become involved in working towards accreditation as a Thinking School?

The decision to put thinking at the heart of our school was taken in the academic year 2005-6. At this point, the school had just achieved some of its best results ever at A level and GCSE, but it was felt by the leaders of the school that somehow we were still not challenging the minds and creativity of the students. Ges Hartley, the Deputy Head Teacher, began by planning and implementing a number of cross curricular projects or ‘rich tasks’, as they have now become known. The first task was based on Fibonacci and brought together mathematics, music, ICT, drama and Media in a new and innovative way. The project was called the Phi factor and was featured in the TES. Our students were, finally, having to transfer skills from different disciplines and apply past knowledge, in order to move forward with their creative projects. A focus was placed on group work and skills of collaboration (interdependence as this would later be known). Students were assessed on the quality of their work (posters, compositions, film sequences and presentations) but were also asked to quantify levels of creativity and personal growth.

The success of the Phi factor led to further ‘rich tasks’ on migration (this was called Crossing Borders and combines History, Geography, Music and Art) and an independent project for year seven based on the buildings of the South Bank, entitled Perspectives of London. It was clear that the school was beginning to look at learning in a new light and that students were being asked to reflect on and value intelligent dispositions and thoughtful strategies as well as just summative outcomes.

How did Kestrel Education and Exeter University help us develop our new direction?

After success as a lead practitioner in presentation skills and creative thinking, Richard Coe was appointed as Director of Independent Learning and charged with researching possible programmes for the school. We were made aware of Kestrel via the TES and a CPD flier that came to the school. Richard attended a Kestrel welcoming conference in Watford, where their support programme was introduced and some of the techniques and tools for developing a Thinking School were discussed. Professor Burden from the Cognitive Education Centre at Exeter University was present and explained the links between the university and Kestrel in a move to make schools more thought-full. We were encouraged to join the network, which is when we decided to ask Kestrel to send in a consultant to help with our planning.

A Kestrel Consultant, was therefore asked to come and discuss a possible programme in March 2007 and his visit was met with much enthusiasm. Richard then attended a follow-up session with Kestrel in May 2007 and was extremely impressed by the speakers from schools and from Exeter University.

How did we put our plans into practice?

By summer 2007, six teachers had been trained as trainers for Thinking Maps and all eight maps were trialled by this Drive Team. The following year Thinking Maps were introduced across the whole curriculum at all key stages by all teachers. This was reinforced through performance management targets. Despite some initial reluctance on behalf of both staff and students (who likes change?) the maps started to have a visible impact on the processing of knowledge and thought by students. It was evident from the exemplar material and observations that students were beginning to understand the link between the visual tool and the actual thought process. For example the simple bubble map focusing on adjectives really led to an improved descriptive quality of student’s written work. Previously, they had always taken description for granted and therefore had not given it any thought. By focusing their thoughts on description via the bubble map their vocabulary became richer and more considered. As a result, the Maps are now seen as vital tools, held in high regard by both staff and students, as recent reviews and surveys have shown.

During 2007-8, Richard attended further Network conferences - on Creativity in Exeter and on Habits of Mind in Birmingham. Art Costa’s work on Habits of Mind was such an inspiration that further reading and research was undertaken on how to implement his ideas. Staff were surveyed and introduced to the concept and six Habits were chosen as ‘termly themes’ for 2008-9. Habits of Mind were introduced formally to Years 7-11 through our vertically-integrated house system (another initiative to promote thinking and creativity across the school). Weekly sessions introduced different ideas on the Habit for that term and asked students to reflect on their own behaviours, to make links with their own experiences and the wider world and to partake in a wide range of activities such as role play, creating songs and dances, poster competitions, using Thinking Maps, group discussion or analysing film clips. Students were invited to plan sessions alongside the Director of I-learning and an online forum was introduced so students could comment on the sessions and how they might be improved or adapted. The Head Teacher, Heads of Key Stages and Heads of Houses supported the termly Habits through assemblies, notice boards and commendations.

The Director of I-learning and the new Assistant Head Teacher in charge of Teaching and Learning (Gwynn Bassan) monitored the quality of these sessions through learning walks, termly number-crunching of evaluations, and reading of the online forums. Richard also held open sessions for the most cynical students to come and openly express their views. These students were used to proof-read the next terms lessons and give suggestions on how these might be improved or amended. New students and staff received training on Thinking Maps and CPD sessions were run to develop the use of Maps in the classroom and curriculum areas.

A new stage in our development came with the introduction of Thinking Keys to a Thinking Club for Teachers. Developed by Tony Ryan, the Keys are twenty ways, all titled and having a specific function, to unlock creative and critical thinking across the curriculum. (More details on the Kestrel website.) Richard then ran a twilight CPD session on the Keys, which was seen as a valuable and creative way to incorporate simple but effective thinking tasks into all lessons. A further CPD session focused on the Habits of Mind (termed Habits of Excellence here at RGS to link with our mission statement) where successful strategies were shared as part of a Thinking Carousel. Teachers from a range of curriculum areas took one idea and shared it with small groups. These included incorporating Habits of Mind into learning objectives, assessing the Habits and using Habits to evaluate trips or workshops.

Developing Thinking Maps and supporting Habits of Mind were again integral features of all staff performance management targets, which gave the approach some real gravitas and led to rigorous monitoring by the Director of I-Learning, and by all line managers and curriculum leaders. Richard led two workshops for staff on Thinking Maps, inspired by a two day conference with David Hyerle in Durham.

In the summer of 2008, all curriculum areas were asked to choose from the sixteen Habits those that were most relevant to or pre-requisites for their specialism. This was followed by a really-focused day’s training run by Richard Coe and consultants from Kestrel Education. Richard Cummins, from Kestrel, was also present after being impressed with the work we had shared at regional conferences. The focus for the day was on how to promote and then assess the key habits for each curriculum area, finished by presentations from all teachers on how they were going to tackle this. The level of work was of a very high standard and praised by the Kestrel consultants. Assessing key Habits of Mind is a focus for 2009-10 and again is an integral part of all teachers’ performance management.

After attending a national conference on PLTS, and researching P4C and the work of Ian Gilbert, it was decided by Gwynn and Richard to introduce Thunking Online for the most gifted students. (A Thunk is a question that makes your brain hurt and asks you to look at life from a new angle or perspective. For example ‘Is a broken down car parked?’ ‘Is there more future or past?’ ‘Where do shapes start?’) After a successful trial, it was introduced via some funky postcards to all staff and students. It has taken off better than we could have hoped and we can now all think and debate together online, off the curriculum, with age setting no boundary!

What have we learned so far, and how are we planning to continue and develop the work we have done?

During 2009-10 the Director of I-Learning (recently promoted to Associate Assistant Head Teacher) is researching ,with ten teachers, further areas such as Community of Enquiry, Six-Hat Thinking and Eight-Way Thinking. These teachers opted freely to take part in this research group, which was the most popular choice for CPD this year. The teachers are from across the curriculum, including business studies, psychology, French and technology. These strategies will be piloted and evaluated by these teachers throughout this academic year. It is likely that one of these will be introduced across the school in 2010-11.

Beyond Rochester, Richard and Gwynn have also been trained as Kestrel Consultants, and they have both run workshops at the National Thinking Conference. Richard has also presented at a Habits of Mind conference for Tomorrow’s Learning. The head teacher has recently presented the work we are doing to an International conference on the IB Diploma in Seville. Richard has also published an article for Teaching Drama, a Rhinegold publication which can also be found on the Kestrel website.

A major development in the last year has been devising a ‘learning tree’, devised by Gwynn Bassan, which really links Habits of Excellence to what we call the RGS Learner Profile. The learner profile parallels the Aims of the IB, with the intention of students leaving this school as well-rounded human beings (effectively communicating, knowledgeable, prepared to take risks, caring, principled etc). There are ten aims in total and they can be seen as the final outcomes, or branches of the tree. The Habits of Excellence are seen as the roots – those behaviours that need to be practised in order that the outcomes be achieved. This development, led by Gwynn, has brought all of our initiatives together under one core purpose, and has given the school a clear vision for the future. This learning tree is in all classrooms and staff offices as a constant reminder of our vision.

Our main focus for the future is to embed ourselves as a Regional Centre for Kestrel Education and continue our outreach work with local primary schools. Assessing the Habits of Excellence is a performance management priority, as is developing other thinking strategies with our partners, such as Thinking Keys, Bloom’s Taxonomy and Thunking. Richard and Gwynn would also like to incorporate the various tools and strategies into teacher and student planners and enhance the use of ICT in thinking. This will be aided by three lead practitioners who are focusing on e-portfolios, interactive whiteboards, and online thinking activities and resources for mathematics.

I hope that you find this journey an interesting one that helps you plan out your school approach. Becoming a thinking school is a very challenging but worthwhile road to take. A change of ethos across an entire institution is a massive task emotionally, logistically and financially. That is why becoming part of the network initiated by Kestrel Education has been such an important part of the process. Just when you are beginning to question why and how you will be able to affect change you are revived by either the possibility of a network meeting, consultant help or online resources. Kestrel have been there every step of the way - but what is most important is that they do not believe in a one-size-fits-all model. They understand and appreciate that each school is different, and so must find their own way to embed thinking across their institution.

Richard Coe
Assistant Head Teacher
The Rochester Grammar School

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