The trouble with schools is that they tend to be restricted in what they do, due to student behaviour related fears.
In my last two Blended Learning blogs, I’ve described Projected Based Learning (PBL) approaches to adopting a blended approach at home, in the school or a combination of both. In them, I’ve described how Blended Learning requires/necessitates a fair degree of independent learning and student autonomy. This unfortunately is where probably 90% of readers switch off.
Independent learning or student autonomy is something that instils fear in so many school leaders, teachers and parents. Here are some of the statements I’ve had thrown in my direction over the years when trying to develop independent learners in school through activities such as PBL:
- But they won’t learn anything
- There will be so much time wasted
- They’ll just muck about
- It’s too risky, we might be inspected
- They’ll never learn what they need for the exams
- What if they just go off and climb on the sports centre roof?
The list goes on, including some quotes not fit for publication here.
Following our last Estyn visit in my current school, where we came out of Special Measures, the report mentioned that we were still not letting go of the reigns and allowing pupils to work more independently and that this is what we should move to. Even following this comment, there was still a fear that by letting go a little everything would fall apart.
For years I argued all of the points mentioned above drawing on basic principles and philosophical arguments for independent learning, but I could never quite answer all of the ‘what ifs’. People would agree to some extent with arguments I put across:
- They will need the skills and dispositions associated with independent, autonomous learning in later life.
- Employers want these dispositions in their employees
- Schools should also aim to develop good habits of learning just as much they develop literacy or numeracy skills and should be given parity with those skills
- It’s not just about remembering information for exams, schools should be about so much more
- It would give you more time and space to focus on those who require support or allow you to do really good team or individual tutorials
- One day there may be a virus which forces us to close schools for a period of time and which will require independent learning skills in our students
But no matter how eloquently I argued this, people would always end up pointing to league tables, or the sports hall roof. I needed a solution.
Introducing the Approach To Learning Graduation Stages
I had that ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, one evening at home. The television was on in the background and although I wasn’t really watching it, something suddenly caught my attention. It was a programme called Brat Camp and they were talking about ‘Graduation Stages’. The programme was a reality show all about young people with behavioural and emotional difficulties from the UK, being taken to ‘Brat Camp’ somewhere in the USA. The camp claimed they would bring about positive and lasting changes in behaviour in the young people they worked with. What caught my eye were their ‘Graduation Stages’.
When the young people arrived at the camp they were at Stage 1 which they called ‘Mouse’. At this stage each person had to stay in a six-foot circle and not allowed to talk. They were given food, but it was cold. If the individual obeyed the camp rules they then graduated to Stage 2. At this stage, their circles were slightly bigger, they were permitted to talk to others and given matches to light fires and cook their food. At each Graduation Stage, they were given more freedom and responsibility. This acted as an incentive for the young people and it seemed to work.
This made me think about the students at our school at the time, doing Project Based Learning. There were some, we knew given half the chance would do little work and allow others in their team to do most of it and others who would become disruptive given a bit of leeway and go off to climb on the sports centre roof. However, there were others who were ready to be let of the leash and fly, but unfortunately for them, we were too scared to let go of the reigns. Using conceptual ‘stages’ similar to those on Brat Camp seemed a really good way to manage the way young people worked.
Obviously, I wasn’t going to put all of our students into 6-foot circles to begin with so instead we developed the following 4 stages for our students related to levels of trust and gave each stage a name:
Stage 1 – ‘Asteroid’ – This was primarily teacher led and very didactic. Students at this stage are not yet ready to make their own decisions in relation to their learning and are not yet trusted to work independently. At this stage, put simply, we tell them what to do, how to do it and when to do it.
Stage 2 – ‘Moon’ – This stage is focussed on negotiation where levels of responsibility are tested. Some level of freedom given, but with teacher consent and guidance. For example, a student may wish to work in a team with certain other students at the beginning of a project. The teacher may reply: “I’ll let you work in that team, but I also want you working with X because I know you don’t get on too well with X and I want to see how you manage this”. Another student may wish to go off and work independently, in an open space in the school for the next hour and the teacher may reply: “I’ll let you go, but you report back to me in 30mins so that I can check your progress”.
Stage 3 – ‘Planet’– Students at this stage are motivated and trusted to make many decisions about where when and how they learn. Far more independence is given, with less teacher intervention. Students are given the opportunity to work independently, not necessarily in a classroom with the teacher when appropriate. Students at this stage, will plan out their project in more detail, out lining when they will complete certain milestones. They may also have the freedom to choose the manner in which they wish to present and achieve certain assessment criteria.
Stage 4 – ‘Star’ – This stage is all about Independence and leadership. This is the educational Utopia stage; the stage where students are not only far more independent with respect to decisions regarding their learning, but also lead and help others responsibly. Their own learning is enhanced through instructing and helping others.
The description of PBL approaches to Blended Learning I have described in ‘Blended Learning Part 2’, lends itself to these stages of learning easily coming in to play. If there is teacher collaboration in the delivery of PBL, one teacher could be looking after many Stage 3 & 4 students while a few teachers can look after smaller groups of Stage 1 and 2 pupils. (This can obviously be done in rotation and at times all pupils are brought back to their ‘home teacher’). In an individual class with one teacher it can also work, but the class is set up to enable those you trust to work in one part of the class independently, while the teacher works with a smaller group more intensively.
Monitoring and assessing progression through the Graduation Stages
It’s important to note, that graduation through these stages is not based on ability, but on the extent to which students develop good habits of learning. I’ve always measured this. using an interpretation of Guy Claxton’s 4Rs. If you click HERE you will see the differences between the stages against certain identified dispositions underlying the 4RS. If you click HERE the presentation shows how we report progress through the 4 Rs to parents.
Deciding on what graduation stage a student is on can be done across the whole school and applied to every student or just within the PBL setting e.g. within a faculty in Year 7. I have never gone whole school yet, but on the verge of doing it in my current school. Teachers would regularly give their opinion of the level of the Approach to Learning Stage a student is at. Meanwhile students have their own portfolios where they store evidence. We have Learning Families (Tutor Groups) in our school with two tutors per group (almost all staff are tutors). One Tutor will meet periodically with an individual student and discuss what stage the student should be at. The Tutor will have all of the opinions of the student’s teachers and the student will have their portfolio. A conversation may go along the lines of:
Student: Miss I think I should be moved up to Planet stage. Look I have evidence that I’m managing it here” (The student then shows the evidence against the criteria at each stage)
Miss: Yes, you’ve presented some good evidence here and it shows you are becoming a far more effective independent learner. However, out of your 9 teachers, only three are saying you’re at Planet stage, 7 are saying you’re Moon and two are even saying you are Asteroid. I think at the moment we’ll have to keep you at Moon Stage, but hopefully if you can nudge a few more of the Moon planets up and get rid of the Asteroid level in those two subjects, we’ll consider moving you up next time.
We are considering using this not only for PBL related activities in the school but also what areas of the school we allow students to enter at lunch and break; there are certain privileges that go with certain stages.
Advantages to introducing Approach to Learning Graduation stages
- Students are encouraged to develop good habits of learning in order to be given more freedom and independence in terms of the way they learn
- It really does motivate and encourage students to prove they can be ‘trusted’ (I have seen what some may call ‘naughty’ Year 8 boys, working at lunch time on a project, determined to make a milestone on time and show they can be trusted to work independently.
- Motivated students are given the chance to ‘fly’. In other words, students who might otherwise be frustrated or worse still disaffected by demotivated students disturbing learning, will be given the opportunity to access the curriculum independently and extend their learning.
- The teacher will have less students with them as the students on higher graduation stages may access the curriculum elsewhere. Students on lower graduation stages will have more time with the teacher who will work with the student in building their capacity to learn independently.
- Personalised learning opportunities become real.
- The structure shifts the focus on learning towards developing good habits. which will allow students to access the National Curriculum or exam syllabi more effectively. In other words, students will be adopting 21st century practices as a means to learn.
- These habits of learning will stay with them whether they are working in school or at home.
I’ve tended to introduce this within PBL scenarios and situations, and always shied away from doing it whole school. However, we already measure the 4 Rs three times per year and a few tweaks within our class attendance registers could allow for staff to ‘vote’ more regularly, for the level they feel students should be permitted to work at. For schools with open spaces, this allows us to control much more easily those who are sent out to work independently.
It’s not a difficult thing to introduce and works just as well at Primary (much easier to introduce also) as it does Secondary.
You have a choice now. You can stop here and have enough info to take this further in your own school if you wish, but if you’re interested, below is a description of how I also applied this to our staff.
A Graduated Stage System for whole school development
When I introduced PBL in my first school and graduated stages for approaches to learning Of course, it was all very well as a system to manage student learning, but I was still expecting staff to jump straight in cope with this new way to organise students.
In earlier school where I led this, there was often no consistency when it came to allowing pupils certain degrees of autonomy. For example, in relation to the use of IT, you’d find many students being allowed to waste a lesson on ‘research’, but only 10% of the class really making the most of that time. Or whole classes using IT to simply cut and paste to create the ubiquitous PowerPoint. Some teachers would allow any students to go off and work independently while others strictly kept to the Graduated Stage approach; keeping those they didn’t trust close to them, but the trusted students more time to work out of the classroom, in an open space. It wasn’t until my current school that I began to think about staff development in the same staged way as the Brat Camp model (teachers are not brats – honest, but it’s a good model!).
There are far too many well publicised spectacular failures when it comes to 21st Century practices in schools such as Project Based Learning. This, I believe, is not down to poor quality design or concepts that are ineffective. In almost all cases, it is down to the staff training over time. By staff training, I don’t mean one or two training sessions. What’s required is a staged approach that gradually changes practice and develops new habits. Post Graduate teacher training is all geared up to the teacher in a classroom with their class in front of them. Moving from a didactic approach into one where the teacher becomes a facilitator balanced with being the ‘Sage on the Stage’ when required, takes more courage and skill (especially in a school which is in challenging circumstances). Taking this further and giving students more autonomy is even more challenging for many staff, both mentally to get their heads around it (They’ll be on the sports Centre Roof!) and physically in terms of organisation.
For this reason, I put the Project Based Learning idea on the shelf initially and focussed on developing the staff in stages until they were at a stage where they had the capacity, skills and knowledge to practice 21st Century pedagogy. Here’s a summary of the stages
In this stage we wanted to achieve consistency in all of the basics. We introduced non-negotiables for staff and specific rules were introduced with regards to use of IT and open spaces. We aimed to have the vast majority of staff up confident in all the fundamental teaching & learning skills, such as assessment for learning, modelling, challenge and engagement. As staff developed, we began to allow them to move onto the next stage, we also developed some of these staff into coaches to help facilitate the process and develop/fast-track any new staff.
This process took 3 years for us to feel confident that as a school we could move on. Not all schools will require this amount of time. Inspectors praised the quality of lessons at this stage but as I mentioned earlier, criticised the lack of group work and independent learning. They were correct in this judgement. The lessons were functional and effective; results rose. However, the lessons were not fully meeting the needs of the 21st Century learner. They were designed to meet the needs of the teacher (control, and consistency) rather than the needs of the learner first and foremost. This went against all my principles, but it seemed to work. When I started at the school 23% of lessons were being judged by us as ‘Good’ and better. After three years this percentage changed to 86%.
This is the stage the school is still currently at. We are based in a new school with open learning spaces and a set of Chromebooks in every second classroom. If we hadn’t introduced this staged approach, we would have poorly behaved students being permitted to work in open spaces and Chromebooks being used as ‘easy’ lessons. This may sound harsh, but when you’re a teacher who is exhausted and you know you have your hardest class of the week about to come charging in, the temptation is to give in and go for the easier ride.
The introduction of the first stage mentioned above prevented this and allowed us to move to a position where teachers were equipped with the skills and knowledge; an effective learning toolkit, which negated the need to resort to easy ‘colouring in’ type lessons (as I like to call them). Up until now everything had been done in the classroom.
This second stage is all about moving out of the classroom and developing a more collaborative approach both to teaching and to student learning. We still wanted to play safe and not open up the Open Spaces for all to use, nor did we allow the wholesale use of Chromebooks straight away. It’s a testing stage and so we began to try out some collaborative teaching models with a few teachers. We are also within the PBL classes introducing the beginnings of a Graduated Stage model for students, where some students are ‘trusted’ to use open spaces independently. In classes we set parameters for group work in class, which we monitor the effectiveness of closely.
Again, we will build up teacher skills and competency slowly at this stage. We are currently moving into small teams developing collaborative plans using a Project Based Learning Model, however it is still all controlled. I realise this all sounds very dictatorial, but it is working, and I believe we will soon be ready as a staff to move into the next stage.
This final stage will come about when we are confident all staff fully understand the ethos of the school and the practices we expect, are part of the school culture. There is autonomy and trust given to teachers with regards to using IT and open spaces and group/collaborative work, is common-place and effective.
This is a very quick summary of what is quite a detailed, comprehensive development plan for teaching & learning. I’m using it as an example of how long intended practices can take to become embedded in a school. Going for the ‘quick win, make it look good and get out quick before it all implodes’ model, just doesn’t work and is certainly not right for the learners.
It may be argued that by taking so long the learners going through this process are missing out. However, if you have the basics right you will meet the basic needs of all learners. At Stage One, our results would continue to rise, but as I’ve already mentioned, school should not just be about the results. These are a passport to be used in life, but what use is this passport, if we don’t also equip our students with the skills, knowledge and wherewithal, to use that passport effectively throughout life?