Expecting the Inspection; Cooperative Learning and Ofsted et al.

Based on experiences from schools, this article gives advice on how to best prepare yourself (and your visitor) for an inspection of a Cooperative Learning class.

Teacher: “Okay kids, grab your completed answer sheets, get up and do a Catch1Partner using (XYZ) vocabulary and (ZXY) subtasks. Go!”  For children, no explanation is needed. That may not be the case for an HMI inspector who suddenly sees an explosion of children wildly engaged in conversation, swerving between tables, waving materials, laughing, smiling and thanking.

Since I opened Werdelin Education in 2013, I have worked with hundreds of teachers and for thousands of children in East Anglia, London and the Midlands, Catch1Partner and Think-Pair-Share are now household words. It is therefore inevitable that some of these schools will have received inspectors from their MAT, local council or, indeed, Ofsted.

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Entanglement

What does an inspection of Cooperative Learning lesson have in common with a quantum physics experiment? That the observation alters what is happening. (Never mind throwing a wrench into the machinery as the visitor to this school unwittingly did):

“It was interesting that using the CLIP groups with an “inspector” type person in the room is quite difficult because they try to talk to the children at the wrong moment and thus alter the process. I felt like I wanted to tell the person to stop interrupting the children!”

The above quote thoroughly demonstrates how little this untrained outsider understood what he was looking at. The practical expressions of real Cooperative Learning, the tightly structured Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns, depend on learning being authentically in the hands of every single pupil. So, politely confirm with your visitor that he indeed wants a realistic assessment of what is going on. Once that common goal is established you should be able to request him to hang back. If he still has qualms, ask him in which scenario he thinks the children will be most candid: When speaking to him or when speaking to their peers? We’ve already written on unobtrusive monitoring in 2014.

 

what teachers actually do in the student-centred classroom
This is a a joke, obviously. “Unobtrusive monitoring” – indeed!” Jakob and Her Majesty’s Inspector Mr Ibrahim Lawson in action, 2014.

 

Alternatively, you may offer your inspector to take part as a pupil within a team for close-up engagement. However, if so, he must accept he cannot move for the full duration of the Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern. Also, in the role of a pupil, he is required to follow your modelling of interaction and language to the letter: If he disturbs his partner in the Think-stage or starts running off a on a tangent in the Pair-stage of a Think-Pair-Share, he and (more importantly) his partner will have nothing relevant to offer peers during the ensuing sharing. “Sorry, Jenny and Ahmed, I hope you got a chance to look at the problem, because the man kept asking me if I like maths!”

 

Different differentiation

Some inspectors want differentiation to be obvious, and yes, mixed-ability team differentiation is harder to spot than 3 different levelled worksheets.

In order to demonstrate the extended and deeper understanding in Cooperative Learning lessons to the casual observer (your inspector will be at another school tomorrow) we need to reiterate some basics.

  1. Cooperative Learning does not demand or depend on mixed ability teams. Rather, evidence shows that to be best practice in most cases (see the following).  All Cooperative Learning, as I promote it, leaves space for the teacher to make the best decisions for his class at any given moment with the materials he has to hand. There may be good reasons to split your class into set teams (Just note that even these will always have varied ability). Stalham Academy, my earliest adopter and exemplary school, does use set teams in many cases. This is a choice only you can make.
  2. Cooperative Learning should secure written evidence of differentiation wherever applicable. Some CLIPs directly include writing, others accommodate writing subtasks. In general, “quick & dirty” CLIPs such as Word-Round should be preceded by think-time with note taking. All this should take place in relevant books and all of it secures written evidence of learning, including differentiation as each pupil applies his own unique skills and experiences to the task at hand.
  3. Cooperative Learning always secures some level of differentiation through the social constructivist and dialogical element that is part of its DNA (See the appendix below).
  4. Cooperative Learning does not replace individual work. Ever. Rather, Cooperative Learning is a tool that should lead each individual towards independent capacity. These materials may be differentiated to your heart’s desire. You know best.
  5. Cooperative Learning does not prevent differentiated tasks. Even in such active CLIPs as Catch1Partner, materials can always have multiple questions or you can inject challenging subtasks. The ability to choose challenge levels with each new partner and task through metacognitive processes is just an added bonus which blends nicely with the messages of growth mindset – as opposed to being handed the dummy sheet as you sit down in the loser team. (SSIF school teachers should watch the latest video on Catch1Partner from Bluebell Primary).

 

Pace in place

An issue raised by one inspector is the “pace” of the Cooperative Learning lesson he was observing. The concern, as far as I can understand, was whether the instruction, modelling and instruction checking questions that precede CLIPs slow down the lesson.

To be clear on our vocabulary: Pacing is “primarily a method of organising lessons in a way that makes the most use of class time without being too brief.” If you spend 60 seconds extra to get a Catch1Partner right that involves 30 kids for 3 minutes, you’ve had 90 minutes of dialogue combined, with each conversation auto-differentiated to match each individual pair – and in three minutes some children may work with as many as five partners. So, if he means by pace “effective use of time,” ask him if he would kindly demonstrate to you a better use of these of four minutes.

Furthermore, given confusion is the inevitable consequence of unclear instructions in Cooperative Learning activities – resulting in reduced learning value of these virtual 90 minutes – spending 60 seconds to demonstrate your metacognitive subtask or subject vocabulary is a sensible investment. And, in most cases, staging a Cooperative Learning activity in a well-rehearsed class should rarely take more than 7 to 10 seconds.

However, in situations where subject content is introduced or complex skills recapped (an obvious example would be a multi-step procedure in Sage & Scribe/Boss & Secretary), CLIP-specific instructions would in most cases be embedded in the subject modelling you’d need to do anyway. So, where exactly is the concern? (Again, schools with access to the SSIF-restricted video repository should look at the Sage & Scribe video which demonstrates separate and embedded instructions).

Most worrying, assuming this question does indeed refer to time spent modelling, it shows this inspector is unaware of the incontrovertible research evidence about the crucial role of direct instruction regardless of Cooperative Learning, full stop. On the contrary, unguided or minimally guided instruction in fact “ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century.” To avoid discussion, perhaps direct you visitor to Rosenshine’s brief and accessible “Principles of Instruction – Research-Based Strategies That Every Teacher Must Know.”

 

Conclusions

It is a common experience that inspection results are arbitrary (and, yes, in some cases politically motivated). Because challenging Ofsted’s decisions is time consuming and expensive and because their complaints procedure is unlawful, you need to minimise the amount of things that can go wrong on your end.

As the quote of the disruptive inspector shows, you need to fully recognise two things:

  1. That your visiting observer needs detailed instructions before he can be allowed into your classroom.
  2. That by using Cooperative Learning effectively and appropriately you have ticked every single box of any outstanding lesson: engagement, feedback, accountability, equality, inclusion, differentiation, written evidence of progress of each pupil, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. You should be able to answer ANY question your inspector comes up with with absolute confidence and not let him off the hook until he recognises your point of view.

To reiterate this mantra from the training slides:

know what you want

Humble PIES

One of the greatest threats to learning, especially for us as “professional” adults, is failing to recognise that we could be wrong. In the relationship between inspector and inspectee, this goes both ways.

“Effectively and appropriately“ are the operative words in point two above. Cooperative Learning that is not staged effectively cannot guarantee your PIES, which easily leads into the disgraceful pit of disorganised “group work.” Your inspector has every right to criticise that. The important thing in that case is to take responsibility and recognise what went wrong and learn from it – Was it poor modelling? Irrelevant Instruction Checking Questions? Inappropriate levelling of materials and tasks? Traineees, refer to the checklist that came with your first handouts.

Also, remember even the most well-staged and well executed CLIP may be worthless if not used appropriately in the lesson. Do not run a CLIP which interrupts engaged independent work to “secure assessment” that you can achieve simply by walking around and looking over their shoulders. Again, if your inspector picks up on this, acknowledge you have made a mistake and learn from it. Accept his critique, which only reiterates the fact that CLIPs have no place in your lesson except to let you effectively achieve a relevant objective.

 

Appendix: Differentiation through Dialogic Learning


In many cases where new subject content is introduced, the first task is initially too challenging for most pupils. Therefore, the individual learner requires more discourse. But it is impossible for one teacher to address the unique needs of 30+ pupils. Here, Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns provide a tightly organised way to explore questions and negotiate understanding which expand skills from each pupil’s point of departure towards independent mastery.

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Let us take a moment to look at the differentiated level of challenge for learners within the four steps of a basic Think-Pair-Share. In this case four pupils a mixed-ability team are asked to solve a maths task based on a teacher-modelled procedure. It is a given here that the teacher knows the basics of staging a Cooperative Learning activity, including ICQs, appropriate timeframes, etc. etc. and that he has done his job of positioning pupils so that shoulder and front partners will always be within their zones of proximal development.

These are the eternal steps in the Think-Pair-Share interaction pattern and their outcomes:

  1. The teacher presents a task – the modelling of the procedure and relevant auxiliaries, including vocabulary by the teacher.
  2. Think: Space to silently process and test own understanding, using modelled and prior knowledge.
  3. Pair: Partners compare solutions to negotiate learning through trial, error and explanation to arrive at shared understanding and ownership of task resolution using the modelled procedure.
  4. Share: The outcomes of this process is explained and compared to another pair who has just been through the same process.

As is clear, the differentiation in this example is not found in the task presented by the teacher, but in the dialogical process facilitated by the CLIP.

To secure a log of each pupil’s progress, notes must taken in their books or jotters during all the above four steps. As my university colleagues complain about young adults asking professors to slow down because they try to write every word, I can only assume effective note-taking is currently not being effectively taught. A day-in-day-out opportunity to hone this crucial skill is just one more item on the literally infinite list of objectives Cooperative Learning embeds in your class with no real work from you.

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