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Improving outcomes for all pupils through independent learning.

Giving pupils the green light!


Improving outcomes for all pupils through independent learning.


As we returned to school this September and undertook the latest exciting chapter on our journey into pupil focused independent learning, I was left wondering why more schools aren’t engaging with this agenda.


At a time when Government and OFSTED are telling schools that there isn’t one formula that they are looking for, surely we should be breaking away from the “delivery of a knowledge based curriculum” to an approach where teachers engineer opportunities for deeper learning and where children lead their own learning and have an investment in their learning. This is an approach, which we have gone for as a leadership team and the transformation for us as a school and for the children has been staggering.


If I were to ask whether you would prefer to be involved in something that affects you or have it done to you, then I know how 100% of people would answer. Yet we used to deliver a curriculum to children rather than see them as integral to leading their own learning.


At St Nicholas we have given every one of our learners the right to be involved in their own learning and it has seen us go from a Requires Improvement judgement in December 2013 to Outstanding in March 2016.


The pupils at St Nicholas arrive in school with the same range of skills, attributes, challenges and backgrounds as most other schools with nearly 10% of the school population coming from the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community, which enriches our school still further.


We made a decision as a staff some time ago, that regardless of the learning challenges that children face, all children can learn and we set ourselves a target of 100% 2 levels progress in all three subjects. In 2015 we achieved this and went on to achieve at least 50% in each of reading, writing and maths for more than expected progress. Our children’s baseline in Reception has traditionally been low and therefore progress is the currency which we work in. If we can make enough progress, attainment will look after itself!


In the depths of despair as most RI schools will know, we looked for someone to help us to build on the progress that we knew we were making and decided to work with Bill Thompson ( Bill has a wealth of experience and set up the highly successful Tipton Learning Trust in the West Midlands. His success rate in turning around schools is impressive and this has been built upon his ability to transfer educational theory into the kinds of practical strategies, which can be used and applied by all teachers, at any key stage, in the classroom. He’s keen to reference the work of Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black, Carol Dweck and Shirley Clark as people who have strongly influenced his philosophy for effective learning. Having worked as a School Improvement Adviser in Birmingham and Sandwell, as well regularly conducting training for senior leaders and Ofsted Inspectors regarding school improvement, he’s keen to stress in all his training that leaders should run schools according to what they believe in, doing what they think is important and not just for Ofsted. He is also very different in that he goes into class and team-teaches, showing teachers and school leaders what he talks about, in practice, in the classroom, with the children. He has real credibility.


Our first task was to set about developing a growth mind-set in our pupils and move away from the fear of failure and the fear of making mistakes, which the children often imposed on themselves. We developed a language of incremental growth in learning and the use of the word YET. “I don’t know how to do this YET!” In fact the children often chime this to each other if they say, “I can’t do this.” But it is also about building a growth mindset within the staff and giving the staff the ability to be open an honest about their mistakes and what they can do to improve. We decided that those who failed to be open about their errors, who saw them as private barriers, who lived in a culture preoccupied with blame - will NOT see mistakes as learning opportunities. It was clear that their effectiveness, both with pupils and staff, will slowly, imperceptively, become severely impaired.

The children now proudly display “My best mistakes – and what I’ve learnt from it!” on the classroom wall.


There is no failure only learning opportunities.


This approach, combined with an understanding of James Nottingham’s Learning Pit ( means that children know that learning is a process and takes time and for deep learning, there will be struggle.  However they also know that the struggle is worth the effort and that their learning will benefit from the greater challenge. Lane Clark ( has a lovely phrase as she talks about children going from “strength to struggle!” If we want deep learning we have to develop the resilience in our children, to fight for it and for many children, particularly in challenging contexts, the development of resilience is a platform, which has to be in place before learning can be built. Bill Thompson also refers to the work of Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia, by saying that pupils remember what they have been thinking about, so if you make the learning too easy, pupils don’t have to work too hard to make sense of what they are learning and, as a result, forget it quickly. Unless pupils are put in positions where they are struggling to make sense of what they are learning, little knowledge is likely to be retained in the long term. 


With an understanding of a growth mind-set in place, we asked the children to become more active in lessons. We found that children had become recipients of superficial knowledge acquisition, because curriculum coverage had driven lesson planning, rather than children having opportunities to discuss, challenge, evaluate, and justify their thinking which is the stuff of deep learning.


In many lessons now, the children are given the opportunity to develop their ideas, be challenged and challenge and to explore beyond the superficial. I genuinely believe that when the government talked about deeper learning when the new curriculum was introduced, this is what they meant. Teachers act not as facilitators but as engineers of learning, looking for ways of extending and deepening a pupil’s thinking, but, through random selection strategies, being in a position to be able to assess the learning of each child, not just those who reach the right answer first, which then helps to shape the next phase of learning, for all.   This has led to teachers having the confidence to refocus the learning in the lesson, re-adjusting their planning. Although they have a plan, you have to make hundreds of decisions as you teach that you can’t plan for. This has helped to keep the pace of learning moving forward more appropriately, which in turn, over a year, led to greater learning gains.


The children are invited to discuss a concept that they are learning and will often use an ABC approach, where they are encouraged to either agree with a particular view or answer, build on it or challenge it further. This means that all children are engaged, all have to evaluate an answer or viewpoint and critically they have to use the higher order thinking skills of clarification, justification and evaluation. You would hear children saying, “Why did you choose this strategy, word, method, phrase, …Justify, convince or prove that your methods work …Do you think there is a better way of doing this after hearing our feedback?”


This year we are introducing reciprocal reading, which is a pupil led, self-managed group reading approach. It is a well-researched method used to develop learners’ reading skills, promote higher order thinking, develop listening and talking, and ensure access to the wider curriculum for all learners. Our aim is that pupils will be able to use the skills of predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarising in order to transfer their learning into other contexts. This approach supports our drive for further levels of pupil independence and is just one in a number of strategies which can be used when learners are reading and analysing texts.


All of these are higher order thinking skills and a million miles from the undue pace of a remembering and completing worksheets approach, characterised by a curriculum delivery model. The added bonus again is that teachers are able to assess the learning of the whole class and are therefore better placed to plan the next stage of learning which precisely meets the learning needs of all pupils.


Another successful strategy that we have adopted is that of each child using a set of red, amber and green cups as a means of publically indicating their level of confidence and understanding at that moment in their learning. It’s concerned with the creation of and capitalisation of ‘moments of contingency’ for the purpose of knowing when to move the learning forward. The green cup signifies that the child has confidently understood the learning and is ready to move on. The focus here for the teacher is that this is a child who needs further challenge to deepen their understanding.


The amber cup signifies that the child is being challenged by the concept and may need further support or more practice to consolidate their learning. The red cup shows that the child has a misconception and needs immediate support to help them to clarify their understanding and build on their knowledge, skills and competencies.


The beauty of where we are as a school is that the children are now skilled in supporting each other unconditionally in responding to the coloured cups that each pupil displays as well as the teachers. This means that there is a dynamic learning environment, where teachers and pupils are working together in a climate of mutual respect, underpinned with the knowledge that we need to be put in positions where we are highly challenged, that we will need support and that this is just a part of the learning process. Anyone – teacher, learner or peer can be the agent of support.


The most common query from visitors to school is around whether it is right that more able children or children who have acquired learning should spend time supporting other children. However, we know from research, that the very best way to consolidate one’s own learning is to explain and justify your own thinking. In this way these children are developing their higher order thinking skills and creating a learning community where concepts, ideas and theories are investigated in an un-threatening environment. Quite often the lateral thinking and learning around the concept supplements the learning intentions for the lesson, but this in turn lifts the glass ceiling on children’s learning and children acquire learning which was unplanned and unexpected. The depth of learning benefits again!


This approach also supports the development of mastery rather than the ‘helter skelter’ of superficial learning which has often been the case as teachers rush to meet the deadlines of curriculum coverage. Howard Gardner and colleagues refer to “coverage” as the single greatest enemy of understanding. This raises the issue for some teachers in that they view deeper learning as dispensable because the students who need more time to understand something is less important because the pressure to move on to the next topic or to be given more ‘work’ is too strong. 


The great thing about the approaches we’ve adopted are that it gives teachers more time to assess and give feedback within lessons. We believe that engineering high quality student talk is critical to learning.  

Research shows that giving feedback given in class is far more successful than distance marking referred to a day or two later. More immediate feedback, during lessons, is designed to improve the pupil’s understanding and not just the work.  The work is simply the evidence that points you to what kinds of improvements are possible and desirable. These approaches have significantly led to a more appropriate understanding of pace, which, quite often, needs to slow down as well as improve the depth of learning day by day. Incrementally, this has had a cumulative effect on the overall learning gains across the year.


A way of demonstrating understanding and learning, which is used very effectively  by the children, is through the use of classroom based visualisers. Visualisers give an immediate reflection of learning which has been represented in books or on a white board and allows children to use their work as a scaffold to justify and explain their learning.


Again, one of the concerns of senior leaders and teachers is that if there isn’t enough work in the books then OFSTED might consider that the teacher hasn’t done their job. However, we had to decide whether we were “a work completion school, or a learning school.” Time spent with the children in discussion, questioning, challenge, justification and exploring understanding leads to the children having a deeper conceptual understanding and, through regular re-drafting, will generate higher quality work and the books will demonstrate how well pupils have applied their knowledge and skills in more challenging activities, pursuing their own ideas, asking new questions that arise and expressing new insights. This aspect is a critical factor in any OFSTED inspection and it clearly evidences the progress in deeper learning that the school believes in, taking policy into practice. Our inspection team were clearly impressed with the way that the children questioned each other and promoted learning in the classroom leading to positive comments about children and staff working together to create a really positive culture for learning. Under the new OFSTED framework “Culture for Learning” is an essential aspect of any inspection. As a senior leader, I would be asking myself, “Do we have a culture for learning where children thrive, love learning and support each other to deepen their learning?” If you do then OFSTED will recognise this as they are looking for it!


Like all articles such as this, this process sounds to have been seamless for us and without problems. The truth is that, like all change, it is not without turbulence.


As the senior manager in school, with a passion for Assessment for Learning and the development of a Culture for Learning, it was critical that this passion was shared. It had to be a whole school project, in every class, with all staff on board.


We had carried out some training in Assessment for Learning previously but the spark for the progress that we made last year came from two training sessions for teachers and TA’s at the start of the school year. This ensured that we were all on the same page. It’s important, in my view, that the staff regularly engaged in  informal and formal professional dialogue, a coaching culture and peer learning to ensure that they had opportunities to take risks, innovate and share their practice in order to further cultivate a positive can-do culture. Our assistant headteacher became our school teaching and learning coach and worked with all staff to help develop their confidence and skills and this also allowed her to build consistency across our 2 form entry school.


We were increasingly surprised by what the children were capable of. Children, who previously, were passive and were asked to absorb information, became active and developed skills which allowed them to construct much deeper learning and created a thirst for further learning and a real sense of enquiry. We saw children, who were once passive recipients, standing at the front and demanded that their peers justify their thinking.


We continue our journey this September and look to build on what we have started convinced that it is the right thing to do. As for data, over the last two years we have had 100% 2 levels progress in reading, writing and maths with in between 50% and 60% three levels progress in all subjects. This year, all progress measures are significantly above the average for schools with similar KS1 scores. The attainment and progress of all groups is up with our significantly large group of Gypsy Roma Traveller children achieving well in excess of all pupils nationally.


With data like this, we went into our OFSTED inspection in March with confidence but also hoping that OFSTED would see that, in their words, pupils were “confident, self-assured learners” and their “excellent attitudes to learning have a strong, positive impact on their progress.”


The inspectors were thrilled to see the extent to which pupils were leading learning, were enthused to learn, had a resilience to making mistakes and saw these as positive. Children were described as confident and enthusiastic. We’ve found that once you have these qualities and a learning culture in the classroom, the workload of the teacher becomes much easier to manage. The following extracts from our inspection report show the importance placed by OFSTED, on the quality of the learning culture, can’t be underestimated.


“Pupils’ keenness to answer questions and teachers’ outstanding skills at deepening pupils’ understanding are also evident in English. This was shown in a Year 4 English class, where pupils immediately responded to the question ‘Why do authors use alliteration?’, agreeing that it was for dramatic effect. Then they considered each other’s views on adverbs. After listening to a classmate, pupils commented ‘I challenge that definition of an adverb.’ Similarly, in a Year 3 class, pupils were encouraged to think carefully about how authors use language imaginatively and then challenged to identify and correct errors in a text.”


“Teachers are highly adept at motivating pupils and using powerful questioning techniques. Learning takes place with a sense of urgency, which excites pupils and makes them want to learn. This was exemplified in a fast-moving Year 6 mathematics class, where all pupils were ready to respond instantly to their teacher’s questions and challenges, such as ‘How can maths be used in everyday life?’, ‘Tell me a fact about the numbers 5, 9 and 10’ and ‘How do I know that the number 981189 is a multiple of 9?’ After that, pupils showed remarkable mental agility and speed when, on several occasions, they were challenged to use various operations and the numbers 75, 9, 6, 4 and 1 to calculate to 134. This approach to deepening pupils’ understanding of mathematics is repeated throughout the school.”

(OFSTED report March 2016)


We believe teachers should introduce learning objectives but, crucially, the most valuable time should is spent on building and negotiating the success criteria which lies beneath the objective.  It’s at this stage, that clarity about what constitutes success is needed most. This allows pupils to carry out much higher quality peer assessment tasks in order to evaluate the quality of their learning as well as give each other improvement suggestions, which cause thinking and demand a response. Teachers keep the lesson focused by asking searching and challenging questions whilst expecting pupils, after modelling the process, to ask similarly searching questions of each other. During lessons pupils are routinely encouraged to reflect on the reasonableness of their answers, to detect and debate their errors, to share their thinking with their peers, to respectfully challenge and discuss their learning, to teach each other and to enjoy having their learning critiqued by others because they felt everyone else would help them improve.  


As I have mentioned earlier, I genuinely believe that we are only just beginning to see what our children are capable of. It’s time to embrace the opportunity for change and lift the lid on this potential and give our children the green light to accelerate and own their learning and progress. Only then will we truly start to understand what our children are capable of.


Our staff have removed the glass ceiling that we sometimes impose through superficial coverage learning and replaced it with a deep, analytical, investigative, independent learning culture, engineered by our skilful workforce. We have a learning culture established which is shared with parents by their own children and which parents wholeheartedly support.


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