Deeper Thinking and Questioning Solutions

I am currently teaching my year 9s a very interesting yet (I find) confusing module. It is a scheme of work which I have been given the lovely job of rewriting over the next term. That is fine because I think it does need some reshaping in order to focus it further on the English skills we are trying to introduce and promote. The content and opportunities possible are however, brilliantly flexible, relevant and open to constant  evolution and this is why I and many of my colleagues (yes Tom?!) like it. I planned a lesson the other day which I think promoted skills arguably more valuable than those English skills I refer to above. After beginning to read Zoe Elder’s book ‘Full on Learning’ and focusing in particular on the section about Emotionally Intelligent Learners I really got thinking about this current scheme. Zoe clearly explains the relevance and importance of relating to our pupils why we ask them to complete a task; she makes you realise this process is invaluable. She goes on to identify and outline how we should demand ‘good thinking’ and take risks that allow learners to make mistakes and create their own solutions. After reading such well presented and engaging ideas my thoughts, fuelled by Zoe’s and my planning for the current module (entitled ‘Challenges’), began to merge.

The module culminates in a written assessment asseessing informative writing skills and a spoken assessment where pupils are expected to use persuasive techniques. This lesson used Beth Tweddle’s recent Olympic success as the vehicle for learning. The learning objectives are listed below but the outcome was much more than that.

  • To be able to explain what makes a challenge
  • To use problem solving skills to explain how challenges can be overcome

The whole PPT and article are saved on TES here:

We had been juggling with the idea of what a challenge was for a few weeks; the definition of which still changed lesson to lesson. In this lesson we analysed an article about Beth Tweddle using retrival and inference skills to find quotations and information about the challenges she had been through to gain her Olympic bronze medal at London 2012. So far a fairly simple task; although retrival of inferred meaning is something some of my this group struggle with. Once we had done this task pupils had to identify what type of challenges they had found. We have previously created categories of challenges including moral, social, physical, emotional etc. We watched a short video of Beth Tweddle being interviewed which helped to remind them who she was and more importantly hear the emotion in her voice.  This (as videos seem to!) proved to invigorate their engagement in the lesson.

Following the video I asked pupils to work in pairs to study one specific challenge. On a piece of A3 paper they mind-mapped solutions. They were asked to provide solutions to the challenge by thinking ‘how would you get over this challenge?’. The answers didn’t take to long to come in, eg. Broken bones = doctors, rest, recovery at home. Zoe Elder’s book came in helpful when planning the next stage of the lesson. I could have easily left it at that point and said ‘yep, great so what do we think a challenge is now?’, but I knew they had barely had to think about how to overcome these problems let alone work together. I asked pupils to then pass their challenge/solution maps to another pair. They then had to find further problems and challenges but this time focusing on the solution the previous pair had given. They had to think ‘What else could go wrong? Is there a flaw in the solution?’. This was much trickier and required them to really think carefully about the solution they had been given. I stood back and let them struggle with it because I wanted them to find a way. I only asked questions such as:

“Who else could this solution impact on?”

“Why may this solution not work for Beth?”

“What else could you try to be able to solve this problem?”

I was so surprised at how hard they thought about these problems. They had to think of ways around problems and not just jump to the most obvious conclusion. I believe because it was relevant and because I had explained how we all face challenges at some point they too saw the point of working to solve them. They added problems to the solutions and then we discussed their ideas. Their idea of what a challenge was changed dramatically. They were thinking on a much deeper level than the first task had allowed them to. They were analysing, judging and creating without even realising it. The also loved the lesson ending with a tweet that Beth Tweddle kindly sent me the night before. I found adding the real and human aspect to the lesson really sustained and finally consolidated their learning.

I don’t think this lesson would be judged as having necessarily rapid or sustained progress at first glance because judging by the Ofsted criteria could possibly miss the point of this lesson. My student’s thinking was deepened rather than widened, their ability to work collaboratively increased dramatically (this group normally take the mick out of each other but they really came together to find solutions) and more importantly they began to think about how thinking precisely, calmly and above all demanding ‘good thinking’ of themselves can lead to detailed solutions. So although I didn’t correct many spellings and the outcome was not a huge and PEE filled essay I feel this was one of the most important, productive and successful lessons I have had and they were engaged throughout.

Thank you Miss Zoe Elder for encouraging me to stand back and watch them think!

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