A (hopefully) more than simply vocal student voice.

Last night I met my focus group for the first time. This has been something I have not done particularly well in the past, though hopefully that will change. We plan to some quite ambitious things this year in Create, our trans-disciplinary, enquiry-based curriculum (Music, Media & Drama) for years 7 and 8. Perhaps it is better to give you a brief history of time, or at least the last three years.

Create has been running now since the inception of our Junior Learning Village, when years 7 and 8 joined us for the first time in 2008. We were lucky to be given time out of school to plan these modules at what has now become known as “Muffin Mansion” aka Longhirst Hall in Northumberland just north of our school. Faced with a carte blanche, we as a team were incredibly excited about the potential of breaking down disciplinary boundaries, moving to a new building and having the chance to work with and develop youngsters from an earlier age. Ultimately though there were a number of factors that led to the first year in Create being somewhat of a headache. Many of our staff had not worked with years 7 and 8 and so a lot of our planning was naive in respect of our expectations of such children’s capabilities. In the excitement of moving to an enquiry based curriculum, we possibly spent too much time planning content and not enough time planning pedagogy, i.e. how to teach students to enquire, what are the key stages, what web 2.0 tools would be useful. Finally another major factor was that due to staff departures, in effect the curriculum was planned by one team and delivered by another.

As a result the first year in Create, whilst peppered with vignettes of pockets of success, was on the whole a disappointment. Students were given too much freedom, too early, in enquiries that were too abstract and lacked real world authenticity. Our first unit, “What would music look like?” was a prime example. Using the work of Oskar Fischinger as inspiration, we imagined students making animations set to student composed music with contemporary dance moved choreographed in our state of the art ‘hub’ performance space. Faced with the same blank piece of paper we had experienced a year earlier in planning, many of our students emotionally opted out at the scale and complexity of that with which they were faced.

Fast forward one year and the vista of Create was a markedly different place. Our Year 8 students last year went on an incredible and at times frustrating journey in remaking the movie Twilight. The process was quite remarkable with students quickly overtaking teachers in their skilled editing of video, using chroma key to manipulate backgrounds using our green screen studio and applying after affects. Logistically there were many problems which required navigation and many mistakes from which to learn, but when you walk into a room to find a student inserting a television screen onto the background of a scene, and on the screen is playing the original Twilight movie, you know something special is afoot. The one thing that kept coming back to bite us (sorry, terrible pun) though was the quality of the final product. Logistically, it was a massive achievement to film an entire movie, with jobs and roles for 200+ students, but when you sit students down in the hub for a premiere to watch their film, and they find it hard to follow the movie as their as six different actors playing Edward Cullen, scenes missing as they have been lost in the system and every time the camera wobbles it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief as the moon jumps around the sky in the background, you can’t help but sense the collective disappointment. Of course we continually heaped praise on our students for actually accomplishing such a feat, but in a target driven society, even in our school where process is held in such regard, or kids can’t help but focus on the final product and allow that the dominate their judgement of success.

We are about to run the same unit again this year in Create after Christmas, this time with a twist. To negate the unavoidable issue that we are simply not, nor have the facilities of Pinewood studios we have taken inspiration from the movie Be Kind Rewind. If you are not familiar with the movie, the basic premise is that whilst looking after the local video store, the two protagonists inadvertently erase of the all the cassettes in the store, requiring them to remake all of the movies on a shoe string budget.

Our students will do the same, and thus the aesthetic quality (or lack of) in the final product should not take the shine off their evaluation of the experience, in fact the hammier the better in terms of spoofing the movies. We are still faced with the same logistical headaches as last year though, made more difficult by students making a number of films across the 200 students rather than one combined effort.

So we come back to last night, and my meeting with the focus group. The idea seems quite simple and I don’t know why we haven’t done it before. I have taken a group of 22 keen, but genuinely mixed ability students, (I have graphs, graphs can prove anything, I have a graph to prove that last statement as well), and they are to do the enquiry a half-term in advance of the rest of the year. Between now and Christmas we are going to spend one night a week making these movies, doing the enquiry, working out which tools work best, whether students should sign up to become specialists or have a chance to do everything i.e. cameraperson, actor and composer. Of course there was much bribery in the form of sweets and juice, but I get the sense that these students are genuinely excited by the unit and are proud to be involved not just as guinea pigs but as authentic cogs in the decision making process on how the enquiry will run. An added benefit besides being able to try things out and garner feedback is that when the unit rolls out to the whole year group, I have two students in every classroom who have experienced the process and become extra teachers, coaches and mentors in the classroom. As we draw closer to the end of the process I hope to start training the students in how to coach others, but I am very hopeful that this approach to student voice will be successful. I intend to something similar with a Year 7 focus group cohort in advance of their storytelling enquiry which begins after Easter.

Enthusiasm is contagious, and long may it continue.

Posted in 1. Personal choice | Tagged | Leave a comment

Language for thinking and learning capabilities

The LF reserach team had a discussion about terminology. We decided that it is important to distinguish between the thinking and learning capabilities which learners use when in the process of an enquiry and the steps, or pedagogical framing of an enquiry by a teacher or learning facilitator. So we came up with these lists and invite comments. Each of these single words, or phrases can be ‘unpacked’ but the word itself serves a visual and semantic purpose so that the ones we actually choose to use and share should be the most accurate ‘window’ to the real purpose – or performance of the words. The first list are what learners enact and embody and the second list is more like a map of the terrain.

Thinking and Learning Capabilities


Eight steps – for framing pedagogy


Posted in 9. Reflections on Experiment, Other | Leave a comment

Key Elements in High-Quality Student Projects

(Originally titled “7 Essentials for Project-Based Learning”)

Check these key elements out against our criteria for authentic enquiry…

“Some projects border on busywork,” say California-based educators John Larmer and John Mergendoller in this Educational Leadership article. Here are their suggestions for projects that involve meaningful inquiry and engage students’ minds:

• A need to know – A unit should begin with a “hook” or “entry event” that grabs students’ interest and motivates them to think, I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. The need-to-know event can be a video, a provocative discussion, a guest speaker, a field trip, or a mock letter setting up a scenario.
• A driving question – “A project without a driving question is like an essay without a thesis,” say Larmer and Mergendoller. “A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn.” Examples: When is war justified? Is our water safe to drink? How can we improve this website so that more young people will use it?
• Student voice and choice – The more, the better, say Larmer and Mergendoller. This might involve students choosing a topic under the guiding question, choosing from a limited menu of options for creative products, or students deciding what products to create, what resources to use, and how to structure their time.
• 21st-century skills – Collaboration is a key facet of project work – teams of three or four students planning their tasks, figuring out how to produce their product, and monitoring their work quality through self-assessment.
• Inquiry and innovation – For example, students working on a water pollution unit might generate a series of specific questions: What diseases can you get from water? Do you have to drink it to get sick? Where do bacteria come from? Pursuing answers in books and the Internet – coached by the teacher – should lead to further questions.
• Feedback and revision – “Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work,” say Larmer and Mergendoller. The teacher should provide ongoing feedback, bring in experts and mentors to look over students’ drafts, and provide rubrics and other guides to help students self-assess.
• A publicly presented product – Students should present their final products to an audience that might include parents, peers, community members, and government officials in a big-deal exhibition night. “Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for teachers or the test,” say Larmer and Mergendoller. “When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality.”

“7 Essentials for Project-Based Learning” by John Larmer and John Mergendoller in Educational Leadership, September 2010 (Vol. 68, #1, p. 34-37); this article is available for purchase at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/current-issue.aspx. Larmer is at larmer@bie.org and Mergendoller at john@bie.org.

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Objective criteria from personal knowledge

Posted on behalf of Tim Small:

While we are looking at criteria for assessment for our enquiry process, I wondered if you’d be interested in the framework I developed and presented in an article published in The Curriculum Journal last year, on Assessing Enquiry-based Learning.

These are the five criteria, with associated objectives:

The next figure sets out their relationship with ELLI Dimensions, values and the shifting of prime responsibility for evaluation, from ‘author’ (self) to assessors (others) as the process moves towards fulfilling its ‘communicative purpose’:

For a fuller explanation, please read the article – abstract below, and I’ll email anyone a copy who can’t access it online (subscriber access only).

I’d value your feedback on it – and/or these headlines!

Thank you!


Small, T. 2009. Assessing enquiry-based learning: developing objective criteria from personal knowledge, The Curriculum Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3, September 2009, 253-270. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09585170903195878

Abstract: This article takes as its starting point the idea that policies of ‘personalising learning’ and promoting ‘creativity’ raise issues for assessment which the present framework for assessment and testing in schools in England and Wales does little to address. It explores the notion, also touched on elsewhere in this issue, of a dichotomy that needs resolving between subjective (or ‘personal’) and objective (or ‘public’) concerns in the assessment of learning. Drawing on previous research using Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of response to literature, the article proposes a resolution based on the unifying concepts of a continuum between two poles and movement of the selective attention between them. Tracing this movement offers a ‘vantage point’ from which the ‘hidden’ or ‘inner’ values of a creative process can be glimpsed, which is likened to the dynamic self-assessment of learning power. Relating closely to Polanyi’s philosophy of personal or ‘tacit’ knowledge, the article argues that enquiry-based learning is essentially as creative an activity as composing or responding aesthetically to poetry. After constructing five principles from theoretical observations on the evaluation of creativity, the article goes on to develop a set of criteria and objectives, related to the values already discussed, which are offered as a framework to support self-assessment and joint assessment of enquiry-based learning.

Keywords: assessment; assessment criteria; creativity; enquiry-based learning; learning power; learning to learn; personalised learning; self-assessment; subjectivity; values and learning

Posted in 8. Validation | Tagged | 3 Comments

Assessment presentations: some slides

The final assessment event brings together a learner’s presentation of their enquiry.

Send me yours if you want me to add them to the list below (remove any proprietary material), or just post your own blog or comment with a link — thanks!

(accompanied by Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D956.  I played the version by the Lindsay Quartet with Douglas Cummings, Academy Sound & Vision LTD. CDDCA537, recorded in 1985)

Posted in 1. Personal choice, 2. Observation, 3. Generating questions, 4. Uncovering narratives, 5. Mapping, 6. Connecting, 7. Curriculum, 8. Validation | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Enquiry Question Mincer

Hi all

I mentioned a process called ‘the mincer’ to you and I wanted to share it with you as I think it could be useful. I cannot see how to upload a file (my luddite tendencies are never far away) but I will copy and paste it below for you. It is not mine, so a word about where I got it from: I work as a creative agent for creative partnerships, as administered by the UK Centre for Carnival Arts. The scheme encourages creative teaching and learning through addressing a school wide enquiry and solving it in partnership with artists or other creative practitioners. The mincer was given out freely by Rosy Prue the local co-ordinator. I will ask if there is an author and add it on here shortly if necessary.

I have gone through the creative partnership process with two schools in the past year and used the mincer successfully with both . It drills down a broad area of interest into a tight ‘problem’, or at least it tightens it somewhat. Both schools I worked with wanted to increase literacy levels. On going through the mincer process we uncovered that literacy was about issues such as connection, community, expression, story, the opposite of which lay disengagement and isolation, which helped us get to the core of the problem.

The questions we ended up with were

How can story develop literacy?
How can an exploration of voice develop expression?

I am not sure that this will work with any enquiry but it is worth a go, and i think fills a gap between identifying the object, and all the questions around it, to formulating one particular area for enquiry. Perhaps you’d like to try it?

The Enquiry Question Mincer

This exercise is an opportunity to probe more deeply into what might be loading or underlying your enquiry question.

The mincer is a linear process that acts as a stimulus for conversation in order to unpick your question.

➢ Start: By writing your enquiry question on the left hand side of a piece of paper…
o Why is environment intrinsic to learning?
o Why is equal voice important to successful collaboration?


➢ Dissect the question and pull out the key elements and themes from it – usually two or three core themes that make up the essence of the challenge question. Key words.
o Environment
o Learning
o Equal voice
o Collaboration


➢ The next step is to explore the dynamics of these elements, to identify the spectrum or polarities that make up these questions. These are often two extremes hence we naturally end up with the following polarities:
o Physical V emotional
o Enabling and inspiring V stifling and crushing
o Didactic V experiential
o Growth V stagnation
o Dictatorship V democracy
o Lone-ranger V partnership working


➢ The final part of the mincer is to generate new questions using the polarities and dynamics as a stimulus. There is no right or wrong answer, it just helps to broaden the perspective:
o Is there space in education for didactic teaching?
o Do you need to be inspired to learn?
o How do you encourage self-motivation?
o Is democracy truly achievable?
o How does emotional literacy enhance learning?

NB It can be helpful to come away from an education context at this point, so that you are considering the polarities as universal principles and concepts when generating new questions.

Posted in 3. Generating questions, 4. Uncovering narratives, Other | 2 Comments

Closure on my own Brandon Hill Personal Choice

Good grief.  Managed to find the very photo of my other half, Marina, taken over 25 years ago, which the holly on Brandon Hill made me remember.


Posted in 1. Personal choice | 2 Comments

Mocked-up tools – for discussion

Simon and I discussed some ideas for EnquiryBlogger tools yesterday.
The PowerPoint embedded below shows some mock-ups.
What do you think? Could these be useful to you / to the learners you work with?
How could they be improved? What else would be useful?

Posted in 9. Reflections on Experiment | 6 Comments

Assessment possibilities?

Picking up on the comments from Kayte and Mark on assessment… one of the things we might hope EnquiryBlogger could help with is evaluation, both formative and summative, for both learners and coaches/educators. We need to develop a rigorous discipline around what quality looks like in authentic enquiry.

The first questions we’d want to ask are independent of technology:

  • What feedback does a learner need to stay on course, and to reflect on their progress?
  • What signals does a coach/educator look for when gauging the quality of an enquiry?

We can then ask how EB might support these monitoring/assessment tasks, as well as wondering if EB opens new possibilities that are impossible/impractical in the non-digital world.

A few examples of what EB might offer. The EB project has very limited resources, and the scope for implementing sophisticated ‘analytics’ is limited, but we’ll start simple and see how far we can get:

  1. How am I doing? EB assists with basic information management: stuff shouldn’t get lost if blogged. If each step has an associated tag, then display which tags have been used, and how many times (i.e. a tag cloud is a basic way to do this)
  2. How strong are they on <Learning Power dimension X>? Here we would be looking for indicators that we might correlate with stretching (or not) on a particular dimension. Trivially, asking lots of questions presumably bears some relation to critical curiosity; exchanging messages with peers will have something to do with learning relationships, etc.
  3. How is the whole cohort doing? Aggregated views of such ‘analytics’ could provide a coach/educator with powerful views, analogous to cohort learning power charts. Thus, Are learners struggling with stage X? might be evidenced by no, a few, or v brief blog posts with tag X across the group.
  4. What is the quality of reflection? Natural language parsing can detect the use of particular written expressions that educators take to signal higher quality reflection (note that this is a more ambitious possibility — no promises here!)

OK, this is just to kick off this strand. As a digital platform, we would ideally want to demonstrate that we can not only support what might otherwise be done in a pen+paper workbook, but go beyond this to create new possibilities. I haven’t even looked at the Australian quality teaching matrix for enquiry that Ruth showed us, which I’m sure would trigger new thoughts.

Your thoughts welcomed!

Posted in 8. Validation, 9. Reflections on Experiment | 4 Comments

Mind mapping

Some approaches to mind mapping.

Posted in 5. Mapping | Tagged | Leave a comment