Where's your head at?

Project based learning, thinking on learning and amazing Art projects

July 25, 2012
by Pete Jones

Judging a book by its cover. Ideas and thoughts on how learning is displayed in schools.


When students, staff and visitors walk into your school, what is the first thing they see?

What about your department area?

What is the purpose of display in your school and what does it say about the curriculum in your school?

How often and why are displays changed?

If you asked a student from your school to close their eyes and talk about your classroom, what would they say?

Is your school a lighthouse for learning or a sterile space full of clean corridors?

If we imagine the curriculum is not just the subjects we teach, but the ‘glue’ that binds the school together, a major part of that is the indirect experience students have every day; where they spend their free time, what kind of welcome greets them as the trundle through the gates, how they feel about your classroom, what their school ‘says’ about their learning.

In some parts of my school, we have those insipid inspiring posters, we have displays about what jobs you can get with certain GCSE’s, we have tired, worn out displays of outdated learning frameworks and we have a lot and I mean a lot of space which reflects very little to do with learning. This really frustrates me, because at our core, we are a forward thinking school, which is encouraged to take risks and innovate. It’s just the spaces we have are not nurtured for learning. They’re there to be wiped clean every evening, to be walked through at pace, on the left… I SAID LEFT JENKINS!!  and ignored by the masses.

It certainly doesn’t have to be like this. One of the key factors for improving attitude for learning is recognition of hard work. But how often do we recognise (apart from the grade, comment, well done, pat on the back) the wonderful things that our young people produce?

The walls of your school are part of the curriculum, the glue, the very fabric (obviously), but they could have a really important role to play in how a student feels about learning. So what does your school say when you enter the door? Welcome to blah blah blah, will visitors please report to reception? What percentage of students have work/evidence of learning on the walls? How does your classroom create an enquiring, active mind?

I have had some ideas about this. Let me know what you think….

1. I want the entrance to my school to say, “Welcome to the most worthwhile day of your life so far” and in small print, “and if it hasn’t been, tell someone why!” or something along those lines. Too often, I see schools in which signage is designed for visitors, not students and why they should come here each day.

2. I want every student to have an A3 clip frame or similar, which once a month, during a form time, they have to get down and replace with evidence of their best work; could be a photo. This will be placed on the “My greatest achievement so far” corridor. Every student, every month. Display and celebrate. Can you imagine teachers using this as a tool. “Joe, would this piece be good enough to go in your frame? Why not?”, “what can we do to change your opinion about this?”

Once a year, the ‘greatest achievement’ had to be something outside of school too.

3. Every teacher had to do an audit of the purpose of display in their rooms.  This must include student input. If anything hasn’t been used within the past month, bin it.

4. The staff should agree on what classroom/corridor display is for (as long as it really hits the mark, look at good examples ) and write a policy, which can be used on ‘learning walks’to make sure it’s reflected.

5. Some kind of constantly changed ticker-tape or quote display as you enter the school.

A constantly changing list of learning moments from students and teachers. Famous quotes for Risk Month, Explorer Month…

What we are often faced with is a veneer of greatness; copious quotes from the Ofsted report stuck onto the entrance sign “This is a good school, which provides well for all its pupils”. SO F***ING WHAT! How about we look at what the Americans do outside their evangelical churches. With those letters that can be changed regularly or a LED ticker tape of up-to-date using quotes from staff and students about learning. Imagine first thing you see is a excerpt from your poem you wrote yesterday on the entrance, the red dots running across with exuberant pace, reminding you why this school is such an exciting place to learn. You could end each day texting your valuable learning experiences to the SLT in charge of (something or other) and they can choose which go up(or a great registration activity in forms)- great to get to know students and which departments are providing valuable learning experiences. You could have Eureka month, where students save up their best ‘I’ve got it’ moments to share. The ‘Fail, fail better month’, there is plenty there to fire up the passion for learning.

These are basic aims. Personally I want to see illuminated learning sculptures glowing at night around the school grounds. I want hidden speakers with recordings of brilliant learning conversations hidden the bricks, I want an authentic French market once a month in the MFL corridor. I want the whole place to scream out loud that learning is what this place is about, but I guess its one step at a time.

So now, ask yourself those questions at the top of the list and then think about what it could be like if we really wanted it to all be about the L word not the O word?

Students often say the most enlightening things about learning (if you ask the right questions)and do the most incredible work. We need to capture, preserve and celebrate this, at least for a while before it disappears into the aether. Making it part of the glue that binds the school together.

July 13, 2012
by Pete Jones
1 Comment

Developing the growth mindset in schools.

There is often an uneven balance between lessons which provide a platform for instruction and information, and allowing students to explore the characteristics of the mindset needed to be an expert in a subject.

The ability to notice, analyse and record are a group of skills which feed into many subject areas.

In my subject, Art, the key skill of the artist is to notice. Notice the contour of shapes, the subtle nuances in colour, the way light affects a subject. Think of Monet’s fascination with light. He created many series of paintings exploring the subtle differences in light at different times of day. Henry Moore’s ability to notice analyse and record the human form to create his masterful sculptures. Or Rothko’s immense, uncomplicated abstract paintings, noticing the ethereal effect placing one colour next to another can have. This is part of the mindset that we must teach to allow students to truly engage and respond to a subject.

As a student, the teaching I received in Art was superficial. I remember learning how to make a slab pot, with a clay bow tie stuck on to it, I created an imaginary landscape and painted fireworks. I achieved a C grade at GCSE, which for me was pretty embarrassing. I didn’t take A level Art, because I didn’t really feel good enough, but Art was always my passion and I went to do my Art foundation at the wonderful Art college in Weston-Super-Mare, with some really positive tutors, who allowed us to explore and develop our skills in a manner which was completely alien to me. The one issue I had was life drawing. Every Friday, we trudged up to the top of the beautiful Victorian building to the life drawing class where ‘Andrew’ was always waiting for us in his full glory. I have to admit, there were a few winces from me, being a rather young 18 year old.

We had 2 to 3 hours to work on this. Every time, I could hear furious scribbling, huffing and puffing and discreet steps back from all the other students. I would stand there, wince a little and put together a few meaningful lines and hope for the best. I was considered one of the top students for many aspects of the course; the teachers loved my enthusiasm and the quality of all of my work. Except that was, for my life drawing.

Week after week, we turned our drawings round and there would be 20 or so strong, confident and fairly accurate drawings and then my, well.. Jelly baby. I was incredibly frustrated but seemed clueless why this was going so wrong.

Interviews for universities were coming up fast and I knew how important life drawing was seen by the colleges I wanted to apply for. The coming week, I decided not to look at gangly Andrew, and focus on my class mates. It was then, I realised what I was doing wrong. Students were spending absolutely ages looking at Andrew, thinking about it, then putting marks on their paper, then stepping back, looking again and changing it if needed. This was a revelation. For the first time in my life I had been opened up to the mindset of the artist. The ability to notice, analyse and record had finally been explained to me. From that point on I looked, I mean really looked at each angle, the contours of the torso and the relationship between each part of the body. My drawings rapidly improved and I got into my first choice for Uni.

An artist has the ability to notice. Notice how the light falls on the sea, the composition through a window pane, the beauty in the letter ‘S’ scribed in a tag at Peckham Rye station. As Cezanne said about Monet. ‘Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!’ The artist has the ability to let others see the world in a way others cannot. This is their gift to the world; to notice and reflect the world in a way others don’t recognise.

Now, back to the growth Mindset bit. Carol Dweck has spent her life investigating achievement and success. In her recent book,  Dweck implies that there are two types of mindsets- fixed, where people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.

Then there’s the growth mindset-people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities. ( I must be in this bit)

So, there are two things to consider here, when teaching your subject. Firstly we need to open students to the idea that great accomplishment, whether writing an essay, running a mile or drawing a still life comes from having a difficult time, where we have to be resilient when things get tough and that with hard work and reflection, we can improve.

Secondly, designing learning experiences within your subjects, which open up the opportunity for students to analyse the expert approach to your subject can help students develop the growth mindset for your subject.

The ‘where’s your head at scale’ is a great catalyst for encouraging students to consider their mindset for a task. Students with high ability or talent could place themselves high on the scale- but what does that mean they will do differently to encourage their growth mindset? Similarly, a student with less ability may place themselves high up on the scale due to the nature of challenge for them.  This often demonstrates to students how much of a growth mindset they have. How much they are willing to push themselves, to be resilient, to take risks and consider the approach they will need to acquire to succeed in a task.

Allowing students to discover the mindset for growth and for expertise must surely be our priority when thinking about learning experiences. Who are great examples of great learners within your subject area? What is it about their approach to learning which has made them so successful? What can we learn from them to build mindsets for growth?

Getting students to investigate the ‘heroes’ for your subject or even the teacher talking about their own experiences- like my life drawing story helps unravel the key skills which are needed to allow students to think and learn like the professional, rather than think within a fixed mindset.

Moreover, students can build evidence of these skills through their investigations, develop their expertise of what skills and attributes are needed to become great at something. ‘This much I know has been running in the Observer for many years, where famous people or experts in their field pass on their wisdom to others. What a great thing to do for Year 7’s to pass on to Year 6’s and so on about the mindset needed for success in your subject.

As teachers, we must ensure that every student can access the mindset of the expert in our subject areas, to nurture and encourage the growth mindset for all.

July 12, 2012
by Pete Jones
1 Comment

What’s your recipe for the perfect lesson?

Warning! There are more metaphors and analogies here than you can shake a stick at. Read on at your peril!

So how should a lesson be organised? Back in the dark days of inset before Personalising Learning and neuroscience discoveries, the idea that all lessons had to have a starter(what are we going to learn today), main course (the doing bit) and dessert (plenary) was how every lesson plan was expected to be designed. There were no questions about whether a knife and fork were the best way to eat the starter or whether the main course was suitable for students and do we always need a pudding? Reading The Learning Spy’s post on schemes of learning last night led me on a whirlwind of discovery (ok maybe a breezy path of thought) where he examines the importance of structure within Schemes of work and just how rigid or not they should be. “we need to be able to dip a finger in to ‘taste’ the learning if we are going to serve up something truly outstanding.” Says the spy, inferring that we may need to alter the seasonings or sometimes change the ingredients to ensure that learning hits the spot.

The one hour lesson can be a very difficult vehicle to deliver a really worthwhile lesson. Learning really doesn’t fit into neat one hour slots. And certainly, if you add three courses in that time, it can be difficult to stomach, especially 5 times a day (an obese nation?)

If something is really enjoyable, yet challenging to learn we need to allow students to digest their understanding properly. Just like a good meal, we should allow students to savour every mouthful of learning and give them the time to reflect and digest their understanding.

So where does this take me? Ah yes, after a late night tweet with a couple of stalwarts who were digesting over the learning spy’s musings, I eventually came up with a great idea for a meta-learning lesson.

Ready steady cook- the meta-learning way. Ok, so the title needs a bit of work.

For homework, ask each group to watch a clip from YouTube on neuro stuff, lesson planning etc. Add to this, discussion about their favourite/memorable/challenging lessons- what were key features? You could throw in the Ofsted framework if you really want to.. Make notes and share findings in groups. Then… hand out the lesson ingredients!

So inside a plastic bag is a load of ingredients which may or may not come together to make the perfect lesson. Things such as a bottle of instruction from the teacher (decent vintage), a can of ripe discussion, packet of deep reflection,.. you get the idea. Students have to come up with a recipe card, with timings and amount of ingredients and how to use them. Then act out the recipe using a bowl or pan to put the ingredients together. A great thing to film and share at a Staff meeting! Some teachers might find it painful viewing to realise their recipes are not really up to the palettes of their students, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. (I did warn you about the metaphors..)

A few years ago, I worked with the magical Paul Ginnis, training students to become lesson observers- the empowerment it gave those students to understand the structure of effective lessons and what good learning looks like was inspiring, though many staff refused to take part. Allowing students to understand a bit about outstanding lessons,what is needed for effective learning- what ingredients are needed to create michelin star cuisine rather than McDonald’s happy meals can only be a good thing. Teachers too, need to think about their own recipes. How many of us still just open the can and heat it up?

July 7, 2012
by Pete Jones

That’ll Doodle!


After an absolutely amazing year of challenging, engaging and incredibly rewarding project work, students summed up their Pebble experience with a learning doodle. The depth of thought, the confidence to create original work of real value perfectly reflects the profound experience so many of our students have had this year. Their future thinking interviews are in full flow. The senior leadership team have been amazed at the quality and confidence demonstrated in the interviews. The penny is finally dropping that we need to give students throughout KS3 deeper and more challenging learning experiences to consistently stretch and inspire. The question is how do we involve more departments to develop the Pebble ethos further, or better still, how can we get the whole school to question the value of what and how students are learning? How is our curriculum preparing them for more than just an exam?

For those teachers involved in Pebble, as a consequence of the collaborative and constantly evolving curriculum we have created, it has certainly encouraged us to question the value of what we teach and how we teach in our own subject areas.It has made me have much higher expectations of what I teach in Year 9 Art for example, changing our learning model to an enquiry based experience, focusing on the mindset of the creative learner.

As a group, we all recognise the enormous difference larger chunks of time allow students to think, learn and act differently. Having the time to try, fail, fail better, reflect, aim high and aim better with each unit helps foster a growth mindset.

The vast majority if students respond incredibly positively to having a morning and an afternoon working on their projects rather than singular lessons. They really see the benefits of the longer time- how much deeper they can engage with their learning, extended discussion, collaborate with others to create meaningful outcomes, spend time just getting things right and ultimately being able to reflect properly on their achievements.

It has made me question the value of what I can teach in a single practical lesson. But for students, to have 5 different mindsets to bring to school, 5 different approaches to learning, shuffling from one classroom to another 5 times a day, 5 days a week must at times be incredibly frustrating. How much real learning do we get done in hour slots?From French to Geography to Science, then DT and Maths all in one day?

As a result of Pebble, many students are beginning to question the purpose of traditional models of learning, many students and parents have expressed sadness that Pebble ends at the end of Year 8. As a school next year, we are looking at (hopefully) finally reinventing our curriculum model to allow for a more deep, engaging and challenging curriculum. I will use this blog to keep updated as the year progresses. Will we reach a critical mass for real change? We will have to see. I have to say, I’ve been here before…



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