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St Robert of Newminster in Sunderland
How we became a Thinking School

St Robert of Newminster is a denominational comprehensive secondary school and sixth form college of some 1600 learners, about a third of whom attend the sixth form. Of that sixth form about 50% have joined from other secondary schools. Learners are drawn from varying socio-economic groups with a number of learners coming from areas of high deprivation. The majority of learners are white British; however there is a small number of learners from different ethnic backgrounds. The school is very committed to staff development and involvement in leadership. There has been a constant process of induction for staff and learners into the application of various ‘thinking tools’ since 2007, as we worked toward accreditation by the University of Exeter as a Thinking School.

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

A new leadership group was formed in 2005, following the appointment of a new Head Teacher and the retirement of other members of the group. There was agreement that we clearly needed to provide a strategic direction for teaching and learning. Because there had never been a policy on this, and no plan for moving teaching and learning forward, it seemed that the inherited culture was one of groups of teachers working in small isolated pockets being asked to face up to the challenges of inspections, increasingly swamped by data and school improvement programmes but rarely given the opportunity to engage or collaborate with each other about teaching, learning or about thinking.

With a policy in place by 2006 and a Teaching and Learning Enhancement Plan published the same year, the formation of a Teaching and Learning Steering Group became a priority. Newly appointed to the role of Assistant Head Teacher responsible for the development of Teaching and Learning, it was important for me to harness whatever creative energy I could find to help take the school forward. There was no real route map for this group so we set about considering the existing good practice that already existed in the school. Gradually ideas began to develop and eventually the group was to be the focus for exploring and sharing as well as a being a critical friend. A school model for learning began to develop.
Initially, the group shared good ideas and more often than not some outstanding ideas, but in truth they were no more than that. Members of the group, excited by them, took them on board and tried to implement them in their own classrooms, but there was no sense of a strategic direction yet. National Strategies and AFL came along, but there was not yet the pedagogical shift required to allow these to make a difference across our classrooms.

There was clearly something going on, however. Who talks and what is talked about says much about whether or not impact is being made. There was certainly a feeling of new energy around in the school. Staff were demonstrating a desire for collaboration with others. More teachers joined the group, and a cultural shift began to occur, as conversations about the pedagogy of teaching and learning sprang up in the staffroom. Collaborative professional development programmes began to produce a community of teachers thinking deeply about the relationship between teacher effectiveness and learning. Staff began to develop new knowledge and skills.

Teachers had, however, identified the key problems (or were they the key questions?):

  • Our learners were too reliant on us,
  • They were lacking in the skills necessary for effective learning (and we decided that)
  • They were poor thinkers.

Knowing it is too easy to ‘blame the kids’, it became increasingly obvious that the problem was not the learner. The question that developed was this: were the overall interactions in classrooms fettered by a narrow, increasingly data-driven, results-driven curriculum? Were these limited interactions, also, encouraged by teachers working in isolation, left free to choose idiosyncratic methodologies and materials based on personal values or knowledge transmitted via a variable ITT experience?

It seemed obvious that we needed a whole-school strategy to help our learners become more effective. This meant that they needed to know how to learn. Further key questions began to emerge. What did it mean to be a learner? What did good learners do? What did good learning look like? What did it feel like? What did it sound like? What would it be like to teach a class full of highly effective learners?

Then came the tough question. What do we change or rather what can we change? Having been through TVEI, Flexible Learning and Student-Centred Learning initiatives, the thoughts turned once more to the problem-solving enquiry-based learning models that had been subjugated to a target-driven data-driven, curriculum-impoverishing, results-based agenda. Experience had, however, brought with it caution. It told me that to ask staff to take the risk of undertaking the pedagogical change necessary for moving towards an enquiry-based classroom would be doomed to fail unless we first equipped both learners and teacher with the skills and the confidence to manage that change without sacrificing standards.

A Learning to Learn programme was introduced into the Y7 tutorial curriculum. The programme was an off the shelf product which challenged staff to consider

  • What was the purpose of the tutorial programme?
  • Why did we choose to do it in the way that we did?

Challenging staff to consider themselves not solely as teachers of (English) but of learners who need to know how to learn about (English) was a challenge but was met with openness and a healthy scepticism. Teachers had to adopt a methodology with which, for the most part, they were not comfortable, given its reliance on ICT (always a barrier to change and an excuse for not changing). Our learners, however, for the first time engaged in meaningful conversations with teachers about learning and learning styles. They learned how to be a good learner but inevitably, like many tutorial programmes, it remained separate from mainstream classroom learning. So its potential for causing a shift on its own was questionable.

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

At this point, I responded to the University of Exeter advert which referred to becoming a ‘Thinking School’ and this was followed up by an invitation from Richard Cummings of Kestrel in 2007 to attend a conference at the University of Exeter led by Dr. David Hyerle from the USA. Hyerle placed theory and practice alongside each other, giving evidence from his work with teachers and learners in the USA. The test of a good conference is whether or not I experience the ‘Oh of course!’ moment, when what is being said makes complete sense and has direct application to my own situation in my own classroom in our large comprehensive school. This was one of those.

Dr Hyerle presented his visual tools for thinking or ‘Thinking Maps’. He placed theory and practice alongside evidence of his work with teachers and learners in the USA. Thinking Maps were clearly different from other visual tools, and it seemed obvious to me that they would provide us with the missing link in AFL practice which we had been ‘implementing’ and not really making progress with, since 2005. It was just so obvious that, in St Robert's, Thinking Maps would provide our teachers with a means of accessing what the learner is thinking at any given moment. Until the introduction of Thinking Maps, teachers were mainly assessing outputs after the thinking had already occurred – and these outputs were often flawed with errors in thinking, structure, presentation and concept development. Teachers spent time correcting these errors, and giving work back, to resolve issues that the learner had clearly not assimilated within the lesson. However, the Hyerle Thinking Maps meant that it was possible to get learners to make their thought-processes and analyses visible, so that their thinking - comparing and contrasting, sequencing, classifying, defining, identifying cause and effect relationships that occurred at the processing stage - could be accessed by teachers. Once the thinking of individual learners is accessed, then scaffolding and correcting misconceptions begins to have impact in the teaching and learning processes in our classrooms. The quality of the work then produced increased significantly. Further more it was clear that Thinking Maps would provide our learners and teachers with a common language about thinking and learning.
It was listening to Hyerle that was the really catalyst for developing St Robert's as a Thinking School. Richard Cummins had gathered a group of schools together, some of whom had already introduced the Maps, and were embarking on the road of seeking accreditation as a Thinking School. Professor Robert Burden spoke about the requirements for accreditation – we were miles away from achieving it and he was very clear in stating that he expected a large secondary school to take five years before being ready for accreditation. However, it all seemed to fit into place. There already existed in our school a vision for the strategic leadership of teaching and learning, but it was now being modified and more sharply focused; place thinking at the centre of everything we do and school improvement will surely follow.

How did we put our vision into practice?

The biggest challenge was presenting the vision. I was convinced, but what about the whole school; would they be? How could it be presented as not another initiative in a school super-saturated with initiatives? I had two things going in my favour. First, I was privileged to lead a teaching and learning group filled with talented and enthusiastic practitioners who collectively were highly effective and quite obviously enjoyed teaching. All wanted to become better at it, and there was a sense that individually and together they were capable of producing increased student success. I also knew I would have the explicit support of the Headteacher and other senior leaders.

It was through the contributions of the consultant provided by Kestrel that the next part of the jigsaw fell into place. There was an international perspective to the teaching of thinking that stretched across the globe. The consultant talked about his experience as a cognitive co-ordinator in a school in New Zealand. He shared his model of how the school organised its cognitive curriculum and the impact of it on their outcomes helped focus our thinking. It seemed to me that only by helping staff access the world’s best ideas, practices and training would we produce world class teachers as expert leaders of learning in world class classrooms.

The original plan was to skill-up some of the team in the theory and practice of Thinking Maps, with the intention of introducing them in an INSET session in September 2007. Richard Cummins then introduced me to Bena Kallick and the Habits of Mind developed with Art Costa. Again it was so obvious; why do schools spend so much time dealing with immature and unintelligent behaviour in classrooms when what we should be doing is strategically developing our learners’ intelligent and mature behaviours through a process of recognition and reward? We needed to focus on what it means to be an educated person and the intelligent dispositions of a successful learner - thinking flexibly, being persistent, being able to communicate with clarity and precision. It made complete sense.

These three experiences convinced me we needed to find a way of immersing the school in the common language of the Maps and the Habits of Mind. Once we had the common language then the strategic plan and the vision would be much easier to communicate. So Habits of Mind as a parallel strategy were at the last minute added to the September 2007 INSET.

INSET days are rarely successful unless there is a clear planned approach to delivery and support and we had that. We trained members of the teaching and learning group to help us lead the session, and on the whole it was fairly well received. There would be a programme of training learners across the whole school in the first six weeks on how to use the Hyerle Thinking Maps. Staff would generally commit to using the Maps across the whole school. Despite the inevitable but healthy scepticism (positive) and the inevitable ‘I always use these in my classroom’ (negative and often untrue) the morning session went well.

Less time was given to the introduction of the Habits of Mind and maybe the strategy was not fully understood but I was not disheartened because we had spent a lot of time as a school discussing the type of learner we wanted to see and the Habits clearly would help us focus on developing our learners instead of wringing our hands about their deficiencies. Perhaps it was an error to deliver two completely different pedagogical approaches in one day but I was convinced of the need to not light only one fire but many and the Habits of Mind were used collaboratively with the Maps. The focus on learner dispositions was after all central to our discussions as a school. We had said they were poor learners and poor thinkers and I was challenging staff to answer a fundamental question: we know what our problem is, so what are we doing about it?

I ensured that we did not fall into the trap of putting all our energies and professional capital into one initiative that might fail. I decided that the Maps and Habits alone were not enough to ensure good or outstanding learning experiences for our learners. The model of learning for St Robert’s was still being developed but could it be sustained? Alongside what we had already done, we introduced more training on Habits of Mind, Questioning, Higher order Thinking, Philosophy for Children and Creative Thinking and invested heavily in the development of individual expertise in teachers. There was now an energy for collaboration on lesson design and for practising what had been learned. Certain classrooms became powerhouses of collaborative energy.

I understood that becoming a Thinking School was difficult enough – sustaining its momentum might be impossible. My aim from the outset had been to develop a leadership, well informed, deeply developed and widely distributed, in order to support the development of the emerging learning model. Crucial to this would be the redirection of CPD. It was necessary to communicate the message that ‘Thinking’ is the heartbeat of learning. Strategically we had immersed the school in a culture of thinking but to sustain it, levers had to be added in order to ensure that the vision of a Thinking School became the school priority for all teaching and learning. Part of setting out our clear expectations of all staff was the need to ensure that it was understood by everyone that becoming a Thinking School was not just another initiative or ‘badge collecting’ exercise but was to be the foundation stone for improving the quality and enjoyment of the teaching and learning experience for both staff and learners alike.

This was achieved by making adjustments to:

  • CPD provision
  • Induction of new staff
  • School planning documentation
  • School lesson plan
  • Lesson Observation proforma.
  • Departmental Self Evaluation Forms
  • Performance Management targets.

It is the criteria we set for observing lessons and the performance management targets which crucially make our expectations clear to all staff. We gave a clear signal that we expect all staff to contribute to the development of questioning and thinking tools as well as thinking skills in our learners. We also differentiated our performance expectations according to responsibilities. Staff on UPS1 were expected to ‘model’ the use of the Maps and AFL processes in their classrooms, whereas staff on UPS 3 had to ‘lead and coach’ their use across their departments. The ASTs we had in school had to ‘lead and coach’ their use across the whole school. When new staff join the school we spend two days inducting them into our expectation that they should be Teachers of Thinking. During the appointment process, we look closely at their own Habits of Mind and look to appoint those who can think flexibly, are open to learning continuously and can work interdependently as well as having well developed existing pedagogical skills and excellent subject knowledge.

In the induction period we introduce new staff to our concept of learning at St Robert’s. (Our model is adapted from the work of James Nottingham (P4C) and Mike Hughes (Tweak to Transform).) The idea of presenting learners with significant challenge (through the questions and problems presented) forms the pre–requisite for deep learning which occurs when learners are placed into the ‘learning pit’. Once they are in there, we aim to encourage learners to deploy the thinking tools they have at their disposal (Thinking Maps, Thinking Hats) and Habits of Mind, together with teacher mediation through careful use of AFL, to help them make sense of their learning and climb out of the pit through the application of learning solutions.

We use our highly popular Sharing Best Practice voluntary lunchtime and evening sessions, and directed time, to support other staff who wish to learn more. Twenty or so staff voluntarily give up their lunchtimes on a Wednesday and we always ensure that they can take something new away with them to try in their own classrooms. Increasingly, we provide training for each other via learning conversations. Most recently I have developed the idea of providing ‘drop in sessions’ where a teacher brings along an idea for a lesson that he or she want help with or are seeking to improve. Over a biscuit and a cup of tea, staff from other subject areas set about the collaborative exercise of turning an idea into an outstanding component of a lesson. One teacher of a group of a difficult group of learners was genuinely shocked by a lesson that had been co-designed. ‘I didn’t know just how much they were capable of learning, nor of how much I would enjoy teaching them,’ she smiled and then added the caveat ‘It’s bloody hard work!’

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

The school had worked hard, and the staff for the most part had themselves shown the Habits of Mind required to make the management of change a smooth process: thinking flexibly, remaining open to new learning, applying past knowledge to new situations, thinking creatively and above all displaying the ability to work interdependently, with persistence and a sense of humour. There were sceptics, of course, but for the most part it was healthy scepticism.

However, the time came to ask the crunch questions regarding impact.

The questions we asked were:

  • Are teachers and learners doing things differently in the classroom?
  • Are these differences improving student learning?
  • What can we learn from this experience which would make learning more effective?

In order to help us answer these questions, in January 2008 the school placed a bid to the Thinking Foundation to provide funding for research into the impact of Thinking Maps on teaching and learning. Until recently, there had been no formal analysis of the time pupils spend on higher order thinking. We speculated that the implementation of Thinking Maps in2008 had facilitated the change in teacher instructional levels, resulting in less time being spent by learners in gathering information and more time being spent processing, applying and evaluating information. At St Robert's, the aim of our research was to investigate whether our strategy for introducing Thinking Maps into school was successful. Our research and findings can be found at I’m going to give a summary of our findings below.

Our intentions were to foster a common thinking language amongst students and staff; to develop a greater number of independent thinkers and learners; to place a greater focus on higher order thinking; to improve teacher confidence, collaboration and communication; to increase enjoyment and motivation; and to improve behaviour and raise achievement.

David Hyerle’s eight Thinking Maps provided students with tools to support the development of higher order thinking skills. Following the implementation of the maps, action research was carried out to analyse and measure their impact amongst staff and students at our school. A range of lessons was filmed and staff, with students from Years 7 to 13, were interviewed, providing vital evidence regarding the impact the Maps are having on developing higher order thinking skills.

In addition to this, a series of lesson observations were conducted, across a range of subjects, covering all key stages. Wendell-Holmes’s Three-Storey Intellect was used to assess the time pupils worked at different thinking levels throughout each lesson. Results revealed that where the Thinking Maps were being used, pupils spent less time gathering information, and more time processing and applying it; the Maps, therefore, supported and encouraged higher order thinking.

To supplement the research, every student in year 7 completed a questionnaire, which focused on the use of Thinking Maps in lessons and allowed the students to voice their opinions regarding the effectiveness of the maps. Results were very positive, with 93% of students stating that the Maps were useful in helping support them in their learning.

The whole-school impact of the implementation of the Maps is similarly encouraging. According to teachers, the quality of students’ writing appears to have improved as a result of the Maps being used as planning tools. In one subject area, pupils who chose to use Maps to demonstrate their learning achieved higher coursework grades compared with those who didn’t. Furthermore, lesson observations have suggested that pupils participating in Thinking Maps activities have improved their on-task behaviour.

The results of the action research evaluation have suggested that Thinking Maps support and encourage our students in the development of higher order thinking skills. As St Robert’s prepares to be recognised by Exeter University as a Thinking School, we hope that our students will continue to develop the learning dispositions and habits of mind they need to equip them for lifelong learning.

The impact on the learning experience in the classroom is evident. If the learning is based on thinking, then thinking is the most important thing to be doing in the classroom. Learners are clearer about what they are doing and why they are doing it. There are more conversations about the thinking necessary to complete the task and the tools they might need to perform the tasks set. Less time is spent on gathering information and more time is spent processing and applying it in order to go beyond what is already known and thought. More children are being increasingly engaged through more challenging and stimulating activities. Both class exclusions and persistent absenteeism have fallen significantly in recent years and are now very low – and the improved learning experiences of students may be something to do with it. The school target of improving the percentage of higher grades at A* has also been met and is on an upward trend. When learning about learning is matched closely to comments about behaving intelligently and maturely through the Habits of Mind, learners take this as a signal that we think they are smart. In a recently observed lesson, for example, a student was able to relate how she demonstrated persistence by not only completing a brace map as requested, but by developing it further until she could not make any more whole–part relationships. The discussion that followed allowed her teacher an opportunity to praise her as an intelligent learner in meaningful way which was not superficial.

The importance of the action research we carried out cannot be underestimated. There is nothing more convincing than our own teachers carrying out research about teaching and learning, with our learners, in our own school. The very existence of research projects demonstrates that our teachers are thinking about their own thinking about what can work for them. Often, they work with our learners in sharing their ideas and in asking for feedback. We offer bursaries to staff who are willing to carry out research on the implementation of thinking tools and thinking pedagogy in our school and feedback their findings to staff. This approach ensures that expertise is developed in more than just a few staff and thus sustainability more likely – and sustainability is the test of whether what we are doing is merely just another initiative or is at our philosophical core. For this reason we invest significantly in developing existing and new staff, teaching assistants and those involved in learning support, in rapidly acquiring new tools for thinking and learning.

Learning about Learning, and making choices about which is the best tool to use to help learning, are essential to the development of the Thinking School. Sustainability will however only be possible if we can develop a curriculum model which incorporates the development though progression of thinking. How will it look in Y7 compared to Y13? We are now ready to challenge the curriculum models and move into the next stage of becoming a true Thinking School, where enquiry-based thinking and learning are at the centre of our model for developing educated learners, able to adapt to a world of rapid social, moral, political, technological and economic change. This will of course require the development of a curriculum model for thinking as well as developing creative and imaginative tasks that provide outcomes which raise achievement and narrow the learning gaps across the school.

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