Where's your head at?

Project based learning, thinking on learning and amazing Art projects

September 30, 2012
by Pete Jones

Seeing effort as the path to mastery


I recently had to give a seminar to a group of students about the growth mindset and why we are doing our project based learning course Pebble.  As always, I wanted a hook to allow their understanding to link to something more than just my words.

Being an Art teacher, I am often faced with students explaining that “I can’t draw” or “I can’t paint”,  which of course is rubbish. I can see teachers reading this thinking  I struggle to paint a wall with a can of dulux and a roller, let alone paint a landscape on canvas. But it really is just RUBBISH (sorry keyboard, didn’t mean to tap so hard).

It doesnt have to be like this!

One of the first, and most liberating acts we do as a young child is to learn to draw. In fact, for most of us, we start to draw about the same time as we begin to communicate verbally.

Move over Picasso… There’s a new kid in town.

At  first, we watch the magic of a piece of paper turn more readily to colour as the wax crayons are clumsily strewn across the page. But we soon move on to more defined scribbles, a couple of dots, which represents eyes (aha!) and before you know it, we start to make sense of what’s important to us: a face (mummy/daddy), before moving on to a few with little stick bodies (the family) and then a house with a sun usually in the top left corner (my home and if it’s sunny, I play in the garden). Fabulous stuff to fill the art gallery which is your fridge door for years to come.

And as parents, we love, cherish and adore every piece. “Oh Charlie, that is just WONDERFUL!” usually followed by “what is it?” Instant gratification is something our adoring little learners are brought up with every day. At this point I could bring up potty training and how we get so potty over every wee done in the right place, but I’ll save that as a ‘hook’ lesson for my classroom. It is true that as young learners, we are pampered, protected and perceived as perfect little geniuses every time we put pen to paper, but as we get older, we begin to realise that we might not be as good at some things and better at others. We build up a picture in our minds what our strengths and weaknesses are as learners and often this picture remains unchallenged by the grownups.

Worse still, learners see little point in putting in effort when they feel something is beyond them. For my children at the moment, this is the skill of tidying their bedroom.. Learners will see their peers around them producing work of a far higher standard and think how on earth have they done that? Some learners will also start to see others around them improving their skills whilst they seem to stand still, compounding the feelings of hopelessness.

There are some learners however, who recognise something they feel might be beyond them but will embrace the challenge anyway. They will see that if they care, think, analyse, reflect (let’s call it ‘putting the effort in’ shall we) that they will improve as a learner and understand how to do something a bit better than they did before.

One of the first questions I ask when students come to ‘big school’, is who likes Art, who’s good and who’s not? Children, when they come up to secondary school, at the age of 11 have decided that they are no good at something, that as a learner, they have gaps which they feel they cannot fill. (Hence my hard tapping of the word RUBBISH earlier).

So. Back to the growth mindset. I wanted a ‘way in’, a way for students to ‘hook’ their learning on the understanding ‘peg’.

The buzzer game, which back in the day was a staple of many a fairground, before the spew inducing, ear ripping madness of those crazy rides today (how OLD am I?) It tests nerve, judgement, a steady hand and above all belief.

I asked our rather wonderful DT technician if he could knock one up for me. Duly obliging with record speed, I was ready to promote the growth mindset to my little learning sponges.


I unveiled the mass of wire and battery under a sheet to a mass of hands shooting up. “Oh, me Sir! Let me have a go! I’m brilliant at this”. First victim. James came up, then saw how small the ring of metal was to hover round the house. So to a hushed, focused and discriminating audience, off James set on his journey into mindset exploration. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! Went the ugly buzzer after about 1.5 seconds. “oh.” Went James. Now was the time to see how he accepted advice. I gave James some words of encouragement and words of wisdom, which I think he listened to. Again, he got a bit further before.. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!  The audience chortled at James’s misfortune of realising he wasn’t quite as good as he expected. I asked James if he wanted to try again. He declined and I asked him to sit on the left of the screen. Several more students came up to have a go. Most gave up pretty much straight away after they realised how difficult it was.  One student seemed far more determined, he continually asked for advice and kept going back for more. Dan got all the way round the tricky chimney and was the most successful. Funnily enough, he constantly responded to criticism, and kept going on something which was near impossible. I placed him on the right of my screen. Lastly, Sophie, who openly admitted she found things like this incredibly difficult, but said ‘I’d love to give it a go and see what happens. She must have had 8 or 9 attempts before I pulled the plug. Again, she went to the right of my screen.


At this point I explained to them the fixed and growth mindset. I made sure that the idea of ‘effort being the path to mastery’ was the key point that they must take home and plant on the understanding peg. It resonated with them. It really did. We all have the growth mindset- just look how students playing on FIFA or COD will spend hours and hours mastering their skills, constantly learning from their mistakes. But often, when it comes to mastering the effort which we need for becoming an excellent linguist in MFL, the effort needed to develop the skills of excellent essay writing, the effort needed to become a good runner, we often decide we either can or cannot. We build this picture of ourselves as being good at some things and poor at others, without recognising the effort needed to truly master something.

As teachers, we need to criticise and confront the apathy students have towards learning. If we question their effort, the construction of their own mindsets, their beliefs and values they hold for their learning capacity, we hold one key to challenge the door to learning mastery. This is a key which often isn’t used regularly in lessons or in the construction of schemes of learning. If as a school, our core aim was to nurture the growth mindset to all students, an aim which permeated every lesson, every challenge, the walls, corridors. If students were constantly challenged about their learning beliefs, what might they become?

There was a fascinating piece of research done in the 60’s, where classes were given a standard IQ test. Teachers was told that this test actually had an ability to predict which kids were about to be very special — that is, which kids were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ.  Actually they were all pretty much at the same level, but unknown to the teacher, the students they thought were about to burst with learning greatness were asked much more challenging questions about their learning and pushed much further than others in the class. Those who were challenged, ended the year demonstrating much more understanding than their peers and importantly, a more positive belief in their abilities as a learner, despite their similar test scores at the start of the year.

So as teachers, our key to unlock learning capacity is exceptionally powerful, if we are prepared to unpick the fixed mindset traits so commonly held by the learners in our class and allow students to invest in the belief that ‘Yes we can!’ they see that the effort to learn, to improve really can pay dividends. It might be very, very tough, but it is possible.

So the game is just a bit of fun, but it was a great way of demonstrating the traits of fixed and growth mindset.  Something they will refer to again and again as they feel their way through the challenges faced on our PBL course.

My year 9 students are starting portraiture at the moment. A classic case of ‘I can’t draw’ if ever I heard one. I used the preventative medicine of the buzzer game. Again it has really made the learners sit up and think about what they can do if they see effort as the most important rule of improvement. Long may this continue.

September 23, 2012
by Pete Jones

The Passport to Perfection

For the skills we are learning in Pebble to be internalised, understood, reflected upon and improved, we have for several years tried to find the best way of making sure that the evidence for this is created in a way which forms a coherent dialogue between teacher and learner. I think, at last we might have just about got it right!

We use the PLTS as our focus for each Pebble unit, but the same could be done for any learning skills or dispositions you were focusing on. Students embark on a skills week before recording their understanding. This allows students to explore, try out and understand what this skill is.  Firstly, we use a questionnaire- the sort you might find in a teenage magazine. “Your group have to give an embarrassing talk about contraception in PSHE. Would you (a) hide behind a picture and giggle, (b) Think I know this might be embarrassing but, …..” you get the picture. Students get a score dependant on their answer. Each question helps explore different elements of the particular PLTS. They add up their scores and begin to build a picture of their ability in that particular skill, where they are now and what they might need to change to become better.

Students build on this understanding, discuss what they think the key skills of an effective self-manager are and think of examples of how those skills are used. For example ‘Taking Risks’ as part of being an effective self manager. “an example is when you are not sure what to do, try things out and see if you can do it for yourself and if it doesn’t work out, learn from it.”

As a class, we distill the understanding and agree on the skills we believe relate to that PLTS and type this up on the passport sheet.

Students participate in a task which tests their approach to the PLTS on our Friday session, to help them further understand it before their first project.  For the self manager task we design and create personality hats, a task which has a few twists and turns to test their adaptability as well as organisational skills. At the end of this rather fun task, we unpick the skills we have used and begin to map the evidence as you can see below:


I stamp their passports, when I agree that this skill has been demonstrated, but leave if the evidence does not connect to a particular skill.

Here, I have added my own comment about how a student has used a particular skill. Parents are also encouraged to write down evidence if they have seen particular skills being used effectively at home.

The students have responded brilliantly to this document. It makes them analyse the skill carefully and reflect on their own learning incredibly effectively. This passport will now be used throughout first project ‘A Personal History’ where students investigate and create a family tree or a memory book about one of their ancestors. A great project to focus on the key skills of a self manager.


AND…. If that wasn’t enough of a meta-learning paradise, I am using the rather wonderful ‘Class Dojo’ to reinforce the evidence whilst they are working. When I see the particular skills being exercised, I can click on them using my IPhone or PC and add a point, which comes with a nice PING noise! I can also add a negative BOING if they are not showing those skills. Every time students here the noise, they look at the whiteboard to see who’s got it and for what. Funnily enough, students then come to me thick and fast and try to justify why they should get a point. If they use a quality language of learning to explain why, I may yield… IT’S FANTASTIC!!

Just one click from my phone- so simple, so utterly brilliant!

Click below for a PDF of our Passport to Perfection.

passport self manager

Having created this, I can see a direct use for developing a ‘Marginal Gains’  approach to improving learning and understanding. Something to work on…

Also, being a fairly decent reflective practitioner, I have realised the questioning should include a question like;

“If you were an outstanding self manager, what would your learning in and out of school look, sound and feel like?”

Followed by a Scale of good self manager from poor to outstanding, for students to place themselves on.

Followed by, “why have you placed yourself here? What is your evidence? and what do you need to improve on to move closer to outstanding?”

Will add that for Independent Enquirer, our next PLTS focus.

Anyway. Would love your thoughts on this and share what you do in your schools to analyse skills development.

September 23, 2012
by Pete Jones

What is Pebble and Why are we doing it?

The title for this post, refers to the students first two weeks of our project based learning course, where students analyse:

  • What is learning?
  • What helps us learn?
  • What skills and dispositions do we need to be effective learners?
  • How does a project based approach learning help us?

To begin with, we asked students, what skills are needed for;

  1. What you are best at?
  2. The 1, 2, 3 game?- played with increasing difficulty then reflected on..
  3. Your dream job?

After asking each question, lets say a student said they were good at Fifa on their PlayStation or playing the Violin, they wanted to become a racing driver or a vet, it became clear to students that the skills needed to be successful were evident throughout these different questions. It also made them realise that these skills are inherent in pretty much everyone, its our ability to practise and nurture these skills which perhaps separates us as ineffective and effective learners. What was clearly evident was that to be successful, we needed a group of skills which would allow students to improve as learners, to get them from where they are now to where they want to be.

These are the skills/aptitudes came up with:



I asked students to consider from this bank of skills, which would be our most important 4 that we feel shape us as learners and that perhaps we most need to develop this year. After a few rounds of voting, this focus was whittled down to:

Our ability to be: Confident, Passionate, determined risk-takers when learning. Not a bad starting point for successful learners I think you’ll agree. These skills were placed on their avatars for the WHYA scale? with a space for scoring and re-scoring as we go through the year.

Our next task was to explore what helps us learn. We use a traffic light and a long list of words which need to be placed in order of what is really helpful (green) what can be helpful (amber) and what stops us (red). Some are obvious, but some require a deeper level of thought, such as A LACK OF RESOURCES. at first hand, students will always place this in the red, but what happens when we have a lack of resources; we have to think differently, adapt our plans and improvise to make the best of what we have- Now how important is this?

This is done in groups of 4 or 5 and creates a lot of debate and disagreement about what’s helpful for learning!


Students gain greater understanding of why we are doing Pebble by attending seminars, ranging from ‘What Employers Want’, to watching Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Changing Educational Paradigms’. My seminar was on ‘Developing the growth mindset.’  Students had to write down the key points, share their findings with others from different seminars and then figure out what these seminars had to do with our Pebble course.

Distilling understanding.

From all this information, we had to distil their understanding to finally create one sentence which sums up the entire class’s understanding of we are doing Pebble. To start this discussion, I gave students a load of hexagons to write down their key bits of understanding. Then (as SOLO teachers know all too well) asked them to connect these bits of understanding together. I have to say, the quality of discussion this provoked was exceptional for Year 8 students.

Connecting understanding through the use of hexagons

After the hexagon maps were completed, students had to finally agree on and write down their sentences starting with.. ‘We are doing Pebble because….’ and try and sell their vision to the rest of the class. We then voted on a top three and put there words into our class sentence which, in my case was….

Pebble helps us to get the most out of our brain, whilst learning new life skills by taking on challenges and achieving our goals. It helps us move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, helping us discover our full potential!


Each Pebble class printed, drew, painted and created these sentences on a large scale and placed them on the walls of our classrooms to help students recognise the importance of the year ahead and where, with passion, determination, confidence and risk taking, they will end up. It builds momentum for both staff and students to ensure this statement of intent is met and, when things get really challenging, as they do quite often in Pebble, it serves as a reminder of why we are here.

 For homework, students created a 30 second animoto video, using words and statements to sum up their feelings and understanding about Pebble. A few of these can be seen in the links below:



http://static.animoto.com/swf/w.swf?w=swf/vp1&e=1347639029&f=I8PrnmyraV09DCqw1HxOmQ&d=35&m=b&r=360p&volume=100&start_res=360p&i=m&options=” .


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