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Schools as change agents: how we do it

Girl-on-booksSchools-for-Human-Flourishing-cover-300This content is taken from Schools for human flourishing – an SSAT and Woodard Schools publication published in May 2016. It is authored by John Goodey, Executive Headteacher at St John the Baptist CofE Primary School, Lewisham, London.

Schools can be impressive change agents if they enable children to flourish. In this chapter I will attempt to share some of the approaches that our school has taken on our quest to enable our children to achieve that.

We have recently been developing a ‘learning philosophy’ to try to crystallise and sustain the most successful of our approaches. These are the ideas, practices and pedagogy that we stand for. Our learning philosophy focuses on our school values, learning to learn, our ‘irresistible curriculum’, and our pedagogy.

Our context

St John’s is a one-form-entry, Church of England primary school in Lewisham, South-East London. It serves a richly diverse community and has very strong links with St John the Baptist Church and other community organisations. There has been gradual change in staffing and very consistent leadership in the school. In 2005 the school was inspected and graded as satisfactory. In 2014, Ofsted judged the school to be outstanding.

Our school aims to embody love and understanding, and to nurture individuals as they grow and develop into responsible and successful citizens. We see each child as a unique and special child of God. We believe all can achieve in our inclusive community. We work to develop excellence in teaching, learning and relationships. We use our growing expertise and knowledge to structure learning in a way that ignites curiosity and confidence in our learners. We design learning that is assessment-led and responsive, identifying gaps and intervening to ensure all children achieve well.

We aim to bring together each element of our learning provision so that they connect and form part of a coherent whole. There is a danger that these elements develop as unrelated, fragmented or ‘atomised’ bolt-ons and our school becomes awash with initiatives and approaches that don’t mesh together – a bewildering mess! In our learning philosophy, we aim to show how elements relate to each other.

Our learning philosophy

1. Grounded in values

In our school we have a distinct set of 22 values:

FairnessHumility
ForgivenessSimplicity
HonestyQuality
LoveEnthusiasm
RespectIndividuality
FriendshipUnderstanding
ResponsibilityWisdom
CaringSharing
PerseveranceIndependence
CourageHumour
ConfidenceUnity

All stakeholders were able to contribute to the choosing of these value words. We immerse the children in this ethical vocabulary so that they develop a moral compass from which they can make effective decisions in their lives. Each value word is explored in depth for a month, so the 22 values spread out over a two-year cycle. The children explore the value word in worship times and circle times.

Each value word is explored in depth for a month, so the 22 values spread out over a two-year cycle.

Children are encouraged to ask questions and relate the value words to their own lives. When children experience challenge or have problems with their behaviour, they are supported to draw on the value words to understand their situation. The value words are displayed everywhere in school as a constant reminder of this ethical vocabulary, which helps us make sense of our lives.

The value words are related to the learning powers; eg resilience is related to the value words perseverance, quality, excellence; collaboration is related to the value words respect, empathy and understanding. These values are central to our curriculum – each year group explores a values-based project eg:

  • St Christopher’s Hospice project (year 5 children explore death and dying, partner up with patients, create artwork and tell their life stories)
  • Greenvale Special School link (year 6 children partner-up with children with severe learning and physical difficulties, and share learning experiences on a Friday afternoon)
  • Roots of empathy (year 3 and year 5 children follow the development of a four-month-old baby over the course of a year, learn about their development and needs, and develop their own ability to empathise, thanks to this social innovation charity which in the UK originated in Lewisham and Newcastle).

The value words are related to the learning powers; eg resilience is related to the value words perseverance, quality, excellence; collaboration is related to the value words respect, empathy and understanding.

2. Learning to learn

Two key concepts underpin our approach to learning to learn: Guy Claxton’s concept of building learning power and Carol Dweck’s concept of mindsets.

Our school has developed the use of learning powers (sometimes known as ‘super learning powers’, where learning is portrayed as a ‘power’ possessed by a super-hero who is an amazing learner). We have drawn on Guy Claxton’s approach in building the learning powers of reflection, collaboration, problem-solving and resilience. They enable children to understand what makes for effective learning and what an effective learner does.

Adults will highlight which learning powers and ‘learning muscles’ are in use or could be used to improve learning. We are giving children the language for learning so that they can ultimately become independent and skilled learners who can apply this ability to any learning situation.

‘Meta-learning’ has been shown to have high impact on achievement (Sutton Trust and John Hattie meta studies) and we feel that it is an essential element of the learning experience in our schools.

We are giving children the language for learning so that they can ultimately become independent and skilled learners who can apply this ability to any learning situation.

Learning power learning muscle
Mindsets: We ask children to reflect on the mindset they have used in a given situation – growth or fixed. Drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, we teach the children that intelligence is malleable and that their brains are like muscles that can be strengthened through hard work and perseverance.

We are careful about how we praise. We praise and acknowledge effort, focus and perseverance to achieve a specific goal or target. We find ways to praise the process. We avoid praising the child with comments like: ‘you are so clever!’ This kind of comment nurtures a fixed mindset: instead of ‘you did well because you are clever’, we would rather say ‘you did well because you listened to the feedback and pushed yourself to achieve your goal’.

When children say, ‘I am not good at maths’ or ‘I can’t draw,’ they are exhibiting a fixed mindset and should be encouraged to add yet to the end of their sentence. When children have a growth mindset, they will take risks with their learning and have a positive view of failure. They know that learning takes effort and focus, and they believe in their own ability to learn. They are willing to invest time and effort into learning new things.

We avoid praising the child with comments like: ‘you are so clever!’ This kind of comment nurtures a fixed mindset: instead of ‘you did well because you are clever’, we would rather say ‘you did well because you listened to the feedback and pushed yourself to achieve your goal’.

We provide children with a vocabulary for learning; using the value words and the learning powers enables a child to become self-aware and more emotionally intelligent. They reflect more and are more likely to make reasoned choices. They develop the resilience needed in the face of challenge and the empathy to become citizens who contribute to their community.

We believe that when children use the value words and learning powers to become effective learners they also develop a strong self-belief or ‘self-efficacy.’ Psychologist Albert Bandura has defined self-efficacy as one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. A child’s sense of self-efficacy can play a major role in how they approach goals, tasks, and challenges.

When creating a learning product or artefact, children are encouraged to refine and redraft that piece of work until they reach a standard of excellence (see Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence).

Accelerated progress occurs when teachers plan learning that is based on what the children already understand, and then map out the stepping stones towards the learning target. Taking the children through this learning journey often involves identifying and addressing gaps. Teaching is responsive to the child’s needs. Children learn that they can achieve well, even when the learning is very difficult.

We refer to learning involving a struggle, and learners must be prepared to go down into the ‘learning pit’ (Teaching Backwards, Andy Griffiths & Mark Burns). When we emerge from that learning pit, we know we have learned well and this improves our self-belief. It develops a growth mindset in us and we are more willing to invest effort in the future.

3. An irresistible curriculum

We aim to create irresistible learning experiences through themes and projects linked with each year group. The aim is to make learning ‘irresistible’ to the children so that, when they move on to the secondary phase of their education, they are self-motivated and proactive learners. In order to achieve this, we seek to make these themes and projects highly relevant and engaging. They do cover the national curriculum requirements – but that is not their sole purpose.

The aim is to make learning ‘irresistible’ to the children so that, when they move on to the secondary phase of their education, they are self-motivated and proactive learners… They do cover the national curriculum requirements – but that is not their sole purpose.

We hope that the children will contribute ideas and lines of inquiry themselves. Each half-term we share a mindmap of the curriculum for each year group with children and parents. It is hoped that new ideas will be added as the theme progresses. Embedded within each theme are trips and extra activities which combine to form a programme of cultural entitlement. This ensures that all children experience an entitlement of activities that broaden and enrich their lives. The events take learning beyond the classroom into the wider world.

There is a values-based theme or project for each year group. It is designed to develop empathy and to incorporate the using and applying of the school’s values in a real context. All projects or themes of the irresistible curriculum incorporate the learning powers of reflection, collaboration, problem-solving and resilience, and their respective learning muscles.

Children are encouraged to produce a ‘learning product’ as part of their work in the class theme. They are shown exemplars of excellence which inspire them to produce work of quality. As the children progress, they engage in critique activities with their peers and refine and improve these products in response to feedback. Excellent products are archived to inspire future cohorts.

4. Our pedagogical approach

“Assessment is…the bridge between teaching and learning.”
Dylan Wiliam (2011)

A key aim of our pedagogy is to enable children to become independent and resilient learners. Teachers, through their feedback and interactions, enable children to reflect on their learning and become better learners. Planning is the engineering or designing of learning and it should be assessment-led. Every day, the class teacher needs to consider their assessments (including observations and children’s learning books) so that the learning they plan addresses any gaps and all children make progress towards the learning targets. Hence, assessment is the ‘bridge between teaching and learning.’

Teachers, through their feedback and interactions, enable children to reflect on their learning and become better learners. Planning is the engineering or designing of learning and it should be assessment-led.

When designing a unit of learning, teachers map out the learning journey from prior understanding to achieving the learning target(s) for that unit. This learning journey will include all the stepping stones in between that are needed for that target. Every day, gaps are identified and addressed by the adults and children in the class. This formative assessment is the key to accelerated progress and the attainment of mastery of the destination target(s). A possible template for planning a unit of learning might be:

  • Destination target(s), eg from our learning ladders or the national curriculum.
  • Entry assessment: what is each child already able to do and what do they know?
  • Vocabulary circles: establish the vocabulary that children will need to be using to achieve the target(s) and then identify what is already known and understood (centre circle of two concentric circles); what is partially known (outer circle); and what is not known (outside the outer circle). Each word/term is written on a moveable label; as it becomes known and understood the teacher will move it towards the centre circle.
  • Map out ‘stepping stones’ by unpicking the target and planning backwards to what the lowest attaining child can already do or understand.
  • Consider a stimulus that will excite and engage the children in the context and content of the learning.
  • Share exemplars of excellence in order to set clear expectations for the children.
  • Plan any ‘pre-teaching’ necessary to support those children working from an earlier starting point.
  • Design authentic activities/ problems/ investigations. Will the children be creating a learning product (eg a book, a film, a blog, an exhibition, a model, an event)?
  • Plan opportunities for deliberate practice of key skills involved. These exercises may then support the authentic activities in which children use and apply those key skills.
  • Opportunities for critique and other feedback from peers and adults in the class. Is there scope to involve invited experts?
  • Exit assessment: identify any remaining gaps and secure action/intervention to address these (involving parents/carers as necessary). Show the children the progress they have made in order to ensure they are developing growth mindsets. Update learning ladders software where appropriate.
  • Archive best work to use as exemplars with future cohorts.

We are moving away from ability grouping as we recognise the harm it can do to a child’s self-esteem if they are constantly reminded they are not ‘clever.’ There are times when children with similar needs are grouped together in order for the teacher to provide bespoke teaching or intervention. At other times, children will work with mixed ability groups or learning partners.

Often when a more competent child works with a lower attaining child there are advantages for both children: the lower-attaining child receives increased support from their peer; the higher attaining child becomes more skilled at explaining, reasoning and using specified vocabulary. Sometimes children will choose their own learning partners; and sometimes they will choose the level of difficulty from a range of options.


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2 thoughts on “Schools as change agents: how we do it

  1. Paul Scales on said:

    “Adults will highlight which learning powers and ‘learning muscles’ are in use or could be used to improve learning.” I think the idea of “learning muscles” is rather old hat. Dan Willingham’s work shows that the mind doesn’t work in that way. Domain knowledge is important for critical thinking.

  2. Kate Page on said:

    Written with such clarity of thinking and vision. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing your understanding of how to focus a whole school on a philosophy and practice that empowers children and young people to be agents of their own learning.

    The follow up article would tell a little of your journey to this point. What steps did you take to support the vision and empower your teachers?

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