New head, fresh eyes; a critical outsider’s look at Cooperative Learning

At the start of this term, Mr Glenn Russell was appointed permanent head of Stalham Academy by Rightforsuccess Trust. In the week before summer holidays, Mr Russell gave a critical and qualified appraisal of Cooperative Learning at Stalham Academy.

[Straight to full Stalham video library]

Since the school converted to academy status after going into special measures in May 2014, deputy head Mr Andrew Howard had been acting headteacher. As followers of this blog are aware, Mr Howard’s first decision as leader was to adopt Cooperative Learning in accordance with Sutton Trust advice.

I was contacted by Mr Howard, and we decided the best path ahead was the Skills & Mastery course, which downplays  theory and social skills to focus on quick and easy tools to boost attainment & progress and to close achievement gaps.


“…national average for level fours combined for Pupil Premium is 67%. Well this year, we achieved 75% level fours…”

See video

Skills & Mastery comprises six hours of CPD, in Stalham’s case delivered in blocks of two hour twilights on September 24, December 3, and February 11. Each twilight presented three content-void CLIPs (Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns), which define step by step how pupils interact with materials and peers.

The tight structure secures full teacher control and real-time assessment, along with the high individual accountability, positive interdependence and continuous  full class engagement that should be the hallmark of any good lesson.


Glenn Russell video

“…it’s their ability to get on socially, in unstructured time, to converse with adults, in clubs after school…”

 Though Skills & Mastery is nominally an off-the-shelf course, it should be seen only as a basis from which I tailor an experience unique to each school’s needs. In Stalham’s case, the ubiquitous Catch1Partner* and  Word-Round would provide a versatile, yet effective, base for class and team interaction, with the third CLIP being focused on the problematic area of reading with understanding.  All CLIPs are scalable, content-void and work across all subjects.

Impact on teaching & learning was almost instantaneous; no further coaching was needed by myself between sessions to achieve the results school leadership had been hoping for. In fact, a few hours of CPD with handouts combined with management support enabled the majority of teachers to tailor the CLIPs to their lesson plans, materials and individual learning styles. No further investments were made beyond the six hours of CPD, paid for with pupil premium money.

One of the greatest  challenges with CPD is the buy-in, as outlined by Ms Brosnan of the Teacher Development Trust. However, the combination of management support, simplicity, overall positive response from pupils and the cost/efficiency ratio in relation to teachers’ workload, ensured an overall smooth transition to Cooperative Learning as a dominant teaching style.

But one thing is a positive experience by those already invested and involved. The acid test is the objective assessment of a capable, critical outsider who is fully embedded in every level of a school’s day-to-day workings. No-one has more reason to be critical than the new headteacher, now accountable for the schools success or failure.

Enter Mr Russell.


New head, fresh eyes

From starting out as a PE teacher, Glenn Russell (NPQH) was put on a fast-track course run by National College for Teaching & Leadership, and was identified as one of the top 5 per cent in the country.  He has worked with high deprivation inner city schools, help set up  IES Breckland free school in Suffolk and been a leader in  Norfolk’s first four-school federation.

In this string of short videos, Mr Russell describes his reflections of arriving to what was, in effect, the first full Cooperative Learning school in the UK.


 Glenn Russell on…

…first impressions of Cooperative Learning at Stalham Academy

“…A wonderful surprise…”

… the cost-effectiveness of Cooperative Learning

how much is a good school ethos worth?

…and differentiation

“…this is something no worksheet will give you….”

…and teachers’ workload

“…seeing some of the teachers’ plans, it’s really trimmed down.” 

… Cooperative Learning in relation to pupil premium and SAT results

“…national average for level fours combined for Pupil Premium is 67%. Well this year, we achieved 75% level fours…”

…. management and the new Ofsted framework

“Because the Ofsted framework is about the leadership’s effect on the other areas, [Cooperative Learning] makes a big impact on the new framework.”

* For practical examples of Catch1Partner in relation to rote learning, please see Scenario Two; why drill when you can frack? in Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy; a note to Mr Peal.
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The International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education

During the 1970s, the work of many pioneering educational researchers centered on what we know today as cooperative learning and led to the creation of the IASCE (International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education).

Researchers and practitioners convened in 1979 from Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, England, the United States and Israel, committed to the democratization of schools and the schools’ evolution into learning communities that fostered better student learning, critical thinking, conflict resolution and student self-esteem.

Through careful experimental research, these researchers were gathering momentum on the positive effects of cooperation in group work in order to credibly disseminate pedagogical practices that could transform classroom and school environments.

According to the IASCE “Cooperative learning (CL) is much more than a single classroom practice. It encompasses theories, philosophies, and approaches to teaching and learning that facilitate small-group work and peer-mediated learning so that everyone can participate in and contribute to attaining a group’s goal. The same theories and philosophies have also shaped democratic practices among all participants in a learning organization, including teachers and administrators. They have cultivated practices that support pro-social learning and conflict resolution throughout school settings—including playgrounds, parent-teacher relationships, and staff development.”

Read more on the IASCE homepage, which boasts a host of articles and resources.


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Engaging staff effectively with their CPD; A CL gloss

Without her mentioning Cooperative Learning once, Ms Jessica Brosnan, of the Teacher Development Trust, has unwittingly written a better article on why Cooperative Learning should be adopted as a whole school ethos than I could. 

Ms Brosnan’s original text is italicised.

(…) Many school leaders struggle to create a CPD programme that is relevant and engaging for all staff, while also ensuring it has a strong pupil-focus – lots of excellent ideas have limited impact without staff engagement. (…)

As I pointed out to one potential client, who thought it all sounded a bit too good to be true, I am not interested in wasting my own or other peoples time; no matter how you twist it, the onus is on me, the consultant, to get the results, and more than anything, this means making sure the teachers get a damn good answer to “So, what is in it for me?”

The following slide, always shown within the first 10 minutes of every course, seems like a good start:

CL does not require....

More on this issue in Why Cooperative Learning? What it will do for you and what you don’t need to do…


Ms Brosnan continues:

(…) CPD is still all too often viewed as gathering all staff into the hall and delivering sessions during INSET days, and the idea of CPD as something to be “done to” rather than “done with” is still typical for many schools. 

Cooperative Learning can only be taught one way – that is through Cooperative Learning, where the teachers get an empathic experience of how a child struggles to take on-board new knowledge, often partially outside their frame of reference and easily misunderstood due to incorrect assumptions or connections made to correct assumptions. In CPD using Cooperative Learning, nothing is being “done” to you, you are the “doer” constructing knowledge relevant to you in a discreetly guided, yet simple, organic process.

These one-off lectures and activities often have little or no follow-up, and staff may come away with new knowledge, but none that is particularly relevant to them, or the pupils’ they teach. Research suggests that this is the most common training experienced by staff and yet also the least effective at improving practice. 

Nevertheless, many school leaders try and pack out their INSET days and twilights with endless seminars and workshops and deliver too many ideas in too little time with insufficient chance to practise, reflect, and collaborate.

This is why I have been advocating CPD in 2 hour block twilights with limited scope, and why there should be a 6-8 week gap between blocks. Plenty of time for trail and error, to be dealt with realistically in the following session.

It is worth noting that studies suggest that, on average, it takes teachers more than 30 hours of planning, teaching, collaborating, reflecting, enquiring, discussing, learning and thinking to create a sustained, effective change in teacher practice in a single area.

The collaborating, enquiring, discussing, (in fact all of the above, given thinking is also enlightened by sharing), is best afforded by using the same CLIPs in the staff room; if its good enough for the pupils, it’s good enough for us as teachers, isn’t it? And my experience is that Cooperative Learning is just as engaging for adults. You don’t grow out of loving to hear your own voice.

Ultimately for staff to buy into the CPD processes within their school, it needs to be relevant to their needs, have an impact on the pupils they teach, and they need to be given appropriate time to embed any changes to their practice.

This is why in each CPD session, the subject knowledge of Cooperative Learning as a tool, is interlaced with collaborative negotiation of its impact in specific subjects, specific students and classes, with specific materials. Recently at Rashidun, a London supplementary school, a full unit was committed to actual lesson planning.


Many schools we visit claim to have CPD that is pupil-focused, driven by the learning and development needs of pupils. (…) Although many schools include a performance management target related broadly to student outcomes, the link between staff’s own professional development and the pupils they teach, is often not explicit. (…)

In some of the most successful schools, participation in some form of collaborative enquiry has been explicitly linked to appraisal, ensuring a professional development target with a clear pupil-focus. As teachers, we are driven to meet the needs of our pupils, and where CPD is closely linked, it will be more engaging.

Leadership culture & Teacher enquiry

Teachers and learning support assistants have regular, dedicated and uninterrupted time during term to carry out collaborative and reflective development; conversations about pedagogy and evidence are common. Staff collaborate to decide a few key whole-school professional development areas for the year and these inform the school development plan and performance management processes. A specific member of the governing body is responsible for monitoring CPD processes. 

This really needs no further comment relation to the CPD I am already providing. However, an interesting CPD session would be how to use Cooperative Learning to stage a staging staff-room, rather than classroom, enquiry. Maybe an add-on to Skills&Mastery and the other strictly CL courses?  (see Stalham Academy post for more on this).

“After only two hours of CPD, our teachers have successfully managed to implement Cooperative Learning in their classes with measurable results. We are very much looking forward to our next session.”

Andrew Howard, Head, Stalham Academy, after session #1 of the CL Skills & Mastery course, 2014

As Ms Brosnan points out:

All the research around what makes effective professional development points towards teacher enquiry processes, where teachers get to collaboratively explore and improve their own practice. This has been shown to have much more impact on student outcomes than sending teachers on one-off courses or bringing in speakers to conduct after-school lectures.

Interestingly for me, the author then discusses Lesson Study (?) as a possible solution. I always claim that the structural approach to Cooperative Learning fuses with any other didactic method, from Doug Lemov to MoE, but it is always interesting to find corroborating evidence: In Lesson Study, imagine using Think-Pair-Share with multiple triad members, who would then feed back to home teams using Puzzle?

Might be financially shooting myself in the foot here, but schools might not even need an add-on package: If students can “learn how to learn” – to paraphrase Ms Gillespie – using Cooperative Learning, why not teachers? That would be a real collaborative school ethos, when students knocking on staff room door in the break catch their teachers doing Catch-1-Partner to debrief!

More on Catch-1-Partner, including staging, in this post. For an oldish detailed handout, see last year’s newsletter eCL #1: The Dance Floor is made of Lava + eCL #1 bonus: Mindmap in jpg for easy reference

For Catch-1-Partners relation to CELTA classics such as “Carousel” and “Ladders”a full CL lesson, see Norwich High School for Girls; A tailored workshop lesson plan.

Read Ms Brosnans full article.

More videos with Ms Gillespie et al.

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Enquiry & Immersion: Why enquire? A message from the course leader

Raising the standard above the bog-of-superstition: Why faith communities should be delivering high class, high impact learning experiences to schools.

As we have discussed in multiple posts, RE presents a unique opportunity for students to work realistically and experientially with toxic issues and questions of opinion, meaning, argumentation, and multiple truth(s) needed in the ever more complex 21st century.

For a host of reasons most faith communities have a wish to stay relevant in relation to the wider society. All to often, schools pack multiple places of worship into a single tour to cut costs. While this does secure ticking the relevant boxes, this type of surfing is all too close to the speed-entertainment/consumption our children are accustomed to.

This would hardly be acceptable if the school invested in a visit to the Harry Potter Museum in London. So how can it be acceptable when visiting a faith community and experiencing an off-world point of view that relates to billions of real people, affect politics, start riots and wars and yet seems to have a magnetic influence on everyone, including atheists fighting their corner?

To be taken seriously, places of worship should start by taking themselves seriously, and understand they can, and should, add real value to pupils’ education, far beyond the A-C band of GCSEs.

Faith communities might want to start by looking at their values in relation to the surrounding society and ask themselves two questions:

  1. What do we actually want the children to take away from a visit?
  2. How can we deliver this effectively?

Using Enquiry & Immersion in Ihsan Mosque as a model: To facilitate the aims of the Muslim community in Norwich, the morning session is structured as a student-centred enquiry exercise, making students inter-dependent and yet individually accountable at every stage of their own learning.

Ms D Ridgeon, Avenue Junior

Video feedback from the deputy head of Avenue Junior School, following the Primary pilot.

First of all this helps negate potential concerns about “indoctrination” from parents and media (see post) by virtually removing the teacher from the initial picture.

Secondly, student-centred learning is the only way to fuse the (dare we say 21st century?) skill sets of higher level thinking, negotiation of meaning, exploration of personal values with relevant subject knowledge. We have discussed the nihilistic vacuum of social constructivism without footing in Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy and elsewhere.

The pitch

The following is from a drafted addition to the Secondary invitations:

Schools should invest in Enquiry & Immersion because RS/ Philosophy/Ethics students will

Students will hunt information across a vast body of differentiated materials; corresponding to Ofsted’s “Learning about religion” and will collaborate to and correlate a wide variety of differentiated GCSE-relevant materials on Islam. The mental framework created will be transferable to later studies of Islam and perhaps hopefully give cause to reflect on other religions and atheism in a new light.

The LO’s include a grasp of the specific areas of worship, history and development of Islamic law, scholarly traditions in the face of reform, intellectual heritage, political and sectarian issues, as well as sufism and its relation to other religions.

In relation to the moral and spiritual aspect of SMSC, students will then use this understanding to reflect on moral dilemmas from an “Islamic” viewpoint, corresponding to Ofsted’s “Learning from religion.” The historical insight gathered through working with materials will lead into a discussion of current issues, including the actions of Isis and domestic terrorists.

To achieve all these simultaneous aims, Cooperative Learning classroom management strategies will micro-manage every step of the lesson while giving students an experience of freedom and self-directiveness.

Forearmed by the the enquiry session, your students will question their reflections over lunch in the Mosque with Enquiry & Immersion staff and random members of the Muslim community. Lunch is fully gender segregated, and we have found that, especially for the girls, this creates a very different dynamic to the discussion of gender roles in Islam.

We hope this may serve as an inspiration to churches, synagogues and temples as well as other mosques, to become more than a faith version of Argos, and empower themselves to speak with their true voice. Schools and communities will be better of.

A final note. After her class had partaken Enquiry & Immersion visit, an RE coordinator mentioned a parent phoning the school. In normal circumstances, that would not be good news. However, this mother wanted to share how her daughter had been going on and on about how brilliant the trip had been, and wanted to share it.

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Headteachers meeting, Ayasofia Primary: “Facilitating 21st century skills through Cooperative Learning”

For attendees and those who missed the term’s Muslim headteachers’ meeting: Please find links to materials and topics covered in my presentation “Facilitating 21st century skills through Cooperative Learning.”

From the presentation:

Dual crisis

In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, two there are two crisis:

In education i.e. results in relation to business survivability AND crisis in community cohesion and cultural DNA, both locally and on the globalized arena. PIC As for the first, Poor results must be seen in relation to our education system generally struggling with systemic issues preventing it from meeting the requirements set by DfE in relation attainment – in spite of the continuing lowering of test standards – and UK business routinely complaining that school leavers have neither the practical nor personal skills required by increasing globalised competition. The critique of the education system abounds from teachers, researchers, parents, and include accusations of being outmoded, to controlled, management issues, too goals driven, not concerned with humane education, etc.

In spite of initiatives to improve “emotional health and wellbeing” such as The National Healthy School Standard, the vision of the current primary and secondary school system is restricted to the A-C band of GCSEs, with a functional human being as a wholly accidental – and rare – bi-product. Quoting Tesco director Lucy Neville-Rolfe verdict on school-leavers: “They don’t seem to understand the importance of a tidy appearance and have problems with timekeeping … Some seem to think that the world owes them a living.”

On a social level, this disenfranchisement of our youth indicates that UK secondary education simply does not equip young adults to handle life as it looks in the 21st Century.

As for the second, and highly related to the first as we shall see, the crisis in community cohesion and cultural DNA, it is immensely more important, as it relates to the worldwide undermining of social cohesion brought upon by postmodernism and amplified by globalization, leading to chaos and disenfranchisement as traditional narratives fail to provide valid identity formation.

Related links and resources

Slides in Google Docs

21st Century British Muslim course and the ensuing evaluation of the course.

As for Bologna process and Tony Wagner’s book “Global Achievement Gap” you will find more details in Thinking children are the future? – Cooperative Learning & (Higher Level) Thinking (and, under “21c Skills – the new paradigm of education”)

The video interview library from Stalham Academy is found here.

A Deputy Head response after observing my own teaching with cooperative learning our new mosque outreach programme Enquiry & Immersion is is found here.

For more information on Cooperative Learnong in relation to community builiding see Healing Fractures Ii –  Beyond Birmingham.

A number of posts on the Sutton Trust report on collaborative learning strategies and pupil premium is found here. Links to the report in Stalham Academy Head on: Cooperative Learning & the Sutton Trust on Pupil Premium.

I am hoping to upload at least some of the video shot during the session. Get notifications on twitter.

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21st century British Muslim in London; a message from the course leader

Originally posted on

I have been asked by Association of Muslim Schools management to provide some more detail on the event Cooperative Learning: “21st century British Muslim – the Solution?” to take place on 3rd February in London. The recent events in Paris have only underlined the importance of this course, and the course unit Negotiating conflicting values & viewpoints has been fully committed to dealing with the attacks.
For this reason, we wish to make RE and Humanities teachers, and others responsible for PSHE, SMSC and Citizenship in state schools and non-Muslim faith schools aware of this event. We do so in the hope of presenting Muslim faith schools as a resource rather than being seen as a part of the problem. The Cooperative Learning techniques presented are content void, have instant positive impact, and will fuse with the needs of your specific school.

“Cooperative Learning has had an immediate quantifiable impact on learning at our school”

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Thinking children are the future? – Cooperative Learning & (Higher Level) Thinking

Participating in Educating Future Philosophers and Encountering Beliefs () at the University of East Anglia, followed by delivering a tailored version of the Skills & Mastery course to a Muslim Supplementary School in London, has prompted this short think piece.

Very interestingly, Senior lecturers of Philosophy, RE teachers and Muslim faith school context teachers would be shocked at how much they could benefit from sitting down with each other. (Perhaps something for the next Healing Fractures?)

Tower Hamlets, London

Tower Hamlets, London: How do we get children to appreciate traditional values in a modern educational ethos?

UEA Encountering Belief

University of East Anglia, Norfolk: How do we get children to appreciate traditional values in a modern educational ethos?

Independent, critical and creative thinking and the ability to solve problems is central to Cooperative Learning, by the very nature of the case. In Denmark and other Scandinavian countries these skills have long had a high priority and are considered fundamental to citizenship in a democratic society. More to the point, unreflecting citizens render democracy null and void; being effective engineers did not really help Germans in the 30s.

We have discussed 21st Century skills in some details on the other site, but suffice to say that the rate of change and the amount of new information produced every second is reason enough for schools to invest time in teaching thinking skills on par with maths and English.

The more developed pupils’ ability to sort, contrast, analyse, prioritise, combine, evaluate, form and test hypotheses, to reason, argue, draw conclusions and create and develop new ideas and alternative strategies, the more able they will be to cope with that unforeseeable future which will be their present.

We have already outlined the relationship between businesses and the drive for student-centred learning in multiple posts, but this goes far beyond the banalities of “knowledge workers” temping for governments and nebulous transnational corporations. Rather these are tools which means said governments and corporations might be run in ways we have not even thought of today, or possibly entirely dismantled because they are, in fact, redundant.

Future citizens will need to think out of the box, allowing them to be leaders instead of followers, to create and spot opportunities and, most importantly, operationalise them. Show me any teacher who is happy for his or her pupils to be passive consumers of spoon-fed entertainment packages in the form of television series or (political) game shows.

Cooperative Learning and Thinking skills

Participants of a tailored course such as 21st Century British Muslim, has seen these skills amply demonstrated, as many modules were geared for this purpose alone, such as using Think-Pair-Share in connection with Venn diagramming (more).

But more interesting, even the Skills & Mastery CL course tailored to promote “hard” learning,  seamlessly integrate much of what we have described above. It is difficult to pinpoint all the reasons this is the case, but I shall try to name a few:

By being forced to continually explain their thinking to other pupils, often within set time frames, they need to structure it and plan effective ways of getting a it across to others.

Leveraging classroom diversity, heterogeneous teams means pupils often work with peers thinking in entirely different ways, and referring to other contexts. This both inspires and challenges their thinking.

The ongoing dialogue means pupils combine their thinking, finding similarities and differences, constructing synthesis at higher levels than would be possible alone.

The safety of working in small home teams affords space to risk making mistakes, daring to be creative and experimenting. This again underlines the positive feedback effect of social skills integrated in Cooperative Learning.

In ensuing posts I should like to explore in some detail the different categories of thinking skills and their specific relation to Cooperative Learning.

Some related posts:

P4C? No, P4U! *

Facts vs. Free Thinking? A CL perspective

Collaboration is officially the future paradigm of education

Hunt or be hunted; The (UKIP) Boy in the Bush

* This post is entirely unrelated to the brilliant session by Philosophy4Children at the Educating Future Philosophers event. I have shamelessly copied their strapline for the title of this post, and told my youngest daughter the story about the boy and the tree as a good night story. Thank you to Dot Lenton and Barbara Videon for this.

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