Category Archives: language teaching

Cooperative Learning; Closed Questions, Closed Achievement Gaps

Andy Tharby’s article neatly explains my own motives for promoting closed questions – they provide the exactitude which is the foundation for higher level thinking and they mirror the precision that is a hallmark of Cooperative Learning.

A colleague and I were discussing my ideas for an article on open vs. closed questions in the context of Cooperative Learning, when I innocently mentioned @atharby‘s post Closed-question quizzing – unfashionable yet effective as a source of inspiration. His response: How could I champion Cooperative Learning and endorse Mr Tharby’s reactionary views?

Safely home, I revisited the post to see if I had overlooked something. No, it was as I remembered it; well-written with self-depreciating humour,  references to research, final endorsement of open questions in correct context –  basically classroom practice of Bloom’s taxonomy.

So, is it ‘reactionary’ to view closed questions as “a really quite wonderful thing” and share a personal experience that “lists of closed-questions … are amongst the most dependable and useful of everyday resources”?

Or is it rather, as Tharby himself asks, “stating the bleedin’ obvious”? The following hopefully demonstrates that Cooperative Learning makes that discussion obsolete.


Before proceeding, please note: while all the poorly executed drawings are from my own hand, the cool character design and sleek style is carbon copied from @jasonramasami‘s original illustration featured in Tharby’s article:


[  And, please do familiarise yourself with the key before continuing  ]



Open questions: On the dangers of arming blind people with scatterguns in enclosed spaces

Nowhere does Closed-question quizzing… claim that closed questions should stand on their own – rather “they pave the way for analytical thought.” It’s basic Bloom.

Because, when you ask open questions and expect pupils to acquire your target (the red bullseye) without first delineating relevant vocabulary, concepts and context, this is likely to happen:

The danger of open questions

In case you are wondering, the guy with the arrow in his behind is the teacher.

Because children often lack the vocabulary and reference frameworks that adults take for granted, higher order thinking – let alone “enquiry-based learning” – requires preparation by the teacher. Taking the original article’s reference to Ted Hughes’ poem Bayonet Charge as an example: As a 40+ adult, I intuit just from the title that we are are dealing with a World War One poem – and up pop associated experiences of reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a teenager and of flickering black & white images of soldiers going “over the top.”

However, for children in the today’s classroom, “over the top” would likely refer to a detested classmate’s latest hair-do and the very word combination Bayonet and Charge might have no time-space associations at all; It seems the GCSE Bitesize commentary on the poem assumes they don’t even know what a bayonet is (“…long knives attached to the end of their rifles,” apparently).

How open questions open achievement gaps

Furthermore, who stands to benefit most from open questions? Child A, whose home is full of books and whose parents converse with him over dinner? Or Child B, who is fortunate to chance upon a red-top newspaper used to wrap cheap fish & chips and whose single mother’s longest sentence on record is “Go pick up some fags, yeah!” Now imagine that sentence is presented in Urdu or Polish because Mum doesn’t speak English.

So while Child A’s reply to the juicy open question “How do you think the soldier in the poem Bayonet Charge feels and why?” might be “I think he feels like a cog in a machine, because it mentions him being ‘a hand’ in a ‘cold clockwork,'” you are lucky to get “Dunno” from Child B.

Tharby neatly sums up the above in relation to reading comprehension: “Any densely-packed piece of writing (…) presents a problem. Many children will scan the words but fail to digest the finer nuances of meaning. Closed questions encourage close reading and also allow us to guide students towards the key information.”

The problem with open questions is further exacerbated by discussing them in a full-class plenary where you engage in a five-minute exciting dialogue with Prodigy Child A, while Child B (and everyone else) quietly drifts off. However, refraining from giving Child A the opportunity to explain and explore his thoughts by sticking with closed questions just to engage Child Bs is equally unfair. Ah, the conundrum of differentiation!

Fortunately, replacing that five minute plenary with a CLIP like Catch1Partner in a class of 30 secures a total of two-plus hours worth of differentiated learning opportunities for every single child, regardless of background.

But first things first.

Closed questions, closed gaps

The reason I initially caught onto Tharby’s article was that he so neatly explained my own motives for promoting closed questions – they provide the exactitude which is the foundation for higher level thinking and debating and they nicely mirror the precision that is a hallmark of Cooperative Learning.

Yet, with Cooperative Learning even a closed question may open an opportunity for differentiated higher level thinking and language acquisition through mixed-ability peer learning, as demonstrated below.

Remember that Cooperative Learning should not increase your workload or require special materials, so I am going to use an original quiz sheet Tharby has used with Bayonet Charge. Here are the first three questions:

1. What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?
2. Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?
3. What is coming from ‘a green hedge’?

We will look at variations in tasks and materials ([questions]) at the end of this article, but here are instructions for one sample Cooperative Learning activity (Fig. I):

“The objective is to compare your answers and investigate differences. When I say “Go!” you are going to grab your [questions], poems and a pen, stand up, find a partner and ask your question (Fig. II). Let him explain his answer. If he can’t answer, or you disagree, support him and guide him by identifying where you think he has gone wrong (Fig. III)

C1P cartoon 1-3

Note in Fig. III how the sneaky teacher is carefully listening in. 

Sample discussion Child A and B

A: “My question is: “What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?”

B: Wait, I am reading…. It doesn’t say, innit!? (Fig. II)

A: “Read the first line to  me…”

B: “Sudd… Sudden …. Suddenly he awoke and was … was run … running…”

A: “What does ‘awoke’ mean?”

B: “Oi, he must have been sleeping!”

A: Got it! Well, done, you!” (Fig. IV)

Now, the pair of them swap roles (Fig. IV-VI) before bidding farewell and finding new partners (Remember this is happening in 15 pairs across the class). If you choose to have single [questions] on individual cards, have them swap those cards to distribute learning. 

All the while, you notice the sneaky teacher is pulling out and preparing his open questions (Fig. V-VI) based on his unobtrusive monitoring. It is instant Feedback giving 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year, straight out of the Teaching & Learning Toolkit.

C1P cartoon 4-6

Sample discussion B and A

B: “Ok, my turn: My question is …uhm …: “Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?”

A: “Well, obviously ‘raw’ is repeated: ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw… In raw-seamed hot khaki…'”

B; “Yeah, you are right. Why two times, though? Why be’s poems so hard, innit?!”

A: “Well, repetition makes you notice that word and it connect ideas. The first ‘raw’ is himself, the second raw describes … hot khaki. Weird. Khaki’s a colour.”

B: “No, it’s be’s a uniform. I plays “Ghost Recon” on my bruv’s PS4. We always wear khaki, like.”

A: Ah, because khaki is the colour of the uniform! … ok. Thanks for helping me with that one. 

B: No sweat….’raw’… ok.

Once the basics are covered with closed questions, the more high-level objectives can then be engaged with open questions, again in pairs. As before, the teacher models the relevant language, behaviours for learning, specific vocabulary. etc. (Fig. VII).

C1P cartoon 7-8

And, as before, students support each other (Fig. VIII).

Now bear in mind that you can vary this endlessly to suit your specific needs:

  • Each pupil could read the whole text and answer all closed questions individually before comparing with partners;
  • each pupil (or team) could focus on one closed question to better support partners in the following cooperative activity;
  • Pupils could read the text and come up with the closed questions themselves (A feat of higher level thinking in itself);
  • a sub-task could be to follow up any closed question with their own question starting “why” or “how”;
  • you could even write the questions and your answers on flashcards (if your class is really struggling);
  • you can track responses by letting pupils note and sign answers in logbooks.

You don’t even have to get them out of their chairs. The same principles apply in a Think-Pair-Share: Read the poem, Think, and answer the questions; Pair up and discuss; take it to the next, open, level in Share.

The point is that with Cooperative Learning, you can close achievement gaps and get more teaching and learning out of your current list of closed questions – in preperation for open questions, of course.



NB: The sample conversations are between higher and lower ability pupils. When two lower ability pupils meet, it is a different story, yet collaborating on a closed question brings poem analysis within range of even your most struggling child. And if you run with a basic Catch1Partner with materials, where they swap question cards, every pupil will have the option to discuss an answer twice – first when he is questioned and takes that card, then again when he elicits an answer from the next partner. 

Some related articles:

Mr Tharnby’s work has been quoted before in:

Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy; a note to Mr Peal

More on vocabulary:

The Chemistry of Communication; Oracy Skills in Science (and everywhere else)

On unobtrusive monitoring:

Monitoring and real-time feedback in the Cooperative Learning classroom

On closing achievment gaps:

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss

And Jason’s site is well worth a visit.

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Filed under Cooperative Learning, English, language teaching, Vocabulary

Five Things You Wish You’d Known (about Cooperative Learning) before You started Teaching

One of the reasons why Cooperative Learning yields mind-boggling results is because it solves a lot of those tiresome conundrums that drive teachers nuts.

I got inspired to write this post by Carl Hendrick’s (@C_Hendrick) well-researched and well-referenced piece Five Things I Wish I knew When I started Teaching. Please visit his original post for elaboration on each point.

Most teachers recognise these five as among  the contentious classics. (As bocks1 comments on the post: “Worth remembering these work both ways too…”) However, the point here is not who is right, but how Cooperative Learning might present a practical solution that helps get around the argument entirely.


1. Motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation.

With Cooperative Learning, there is no “causal arrow” here which can potentially point the wrong way. Rather, motivation and achievement are fused. Think of the Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern Catch1Partner where pupils with flashcards get out of their seats, join partners, ask, hint, explain and answer questions, and then swap cards before repeating the process with a new partner.

Enquiry & Immersion C1P

There is movement, social interaction, the excitement of changing partners, the adrenaline of getting it right, the safety of being wrong in front of one person only, and then the victory of having the answer when you meet your next partner, and being able to hint and explain, especially for lower ability pupils. (And for SEN pupils with autism spectrum disorders there is a rigid, safe structure, aside from other relevant measures).

I often pick Catch1Partner as an example of how to effortlessly motivate children to drill key facts and concepts – which are necessary for achievement in any subject. The high achievement is the result of integrating knowledge into memory through the negotiation of meaning, differentiated examples, and targeted explaining. And obviously, because you get better and better every time that card set is used, the higher achievement leads to ever higher motivation, as, Hendrick rightly points out.

Achievement Motivation

Caveat: It is assumed here that you’re drilling facts which are actually relevant to what is being taught, with an exception to this being revision but that is a different story.  (Just remember that you can integrate an endless array of sub-activities, such as demanding they always follow what with the question “So, what else can you tell me about that?” – Thank you for that one, Stalham Academy).



2. Just because they’re engaged doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

That’s not completely true; e.g. sharing new ways to use four letter words under the cover of “group work” will certainly engage many pupils I could think of.  This is precisely the reason Cooperative Learning is not “group work.” The rigid structuring of how pupils interact with each other and the learning materials, paired with limited timing, create a sense of urgency, accountability, and focus, As Matthew snickers in this video, “…there is no room for them to go off task.”

Matthew Vince

Visit full video gallery.

The combination of urgency, accountability, and focus is very difficult to achieve with individual work unless pupils are, as the article points out, beyond the point where the work is challenging. And certainly impossible to achieve with fluffy “group work.”

There is a dry comment to this point by Dan Whittaker that had me laughing: “Great post. Number 2 is the one that jolted me. The title shouldn’t be ‘Five Things I Wish I knew When I started Teaching’ but ‘Five Things I Wish SLTs Knew’.” This is precisely the reason I wrote Get your Head around it about making teaching visible so we can get rid off unhelpful advice such as “ensure pupil engagement” following a lesson observation by the deputy head.

3. Marking and feedback are not the same thing

“The value in marking a piece of work may counterintuitively be of more benefit to the teacher than the student.” I am assuming here that marking means penning into workbooks ticks, crosses, and/or smileys, with a very short comment, for example, “Can you expand on this a bit more?” or “Remember to capitalise your first letter.”

Feedback, on the other hand, from the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit definition:

“Feedback is information given to the learner or teacher about the learner’s performance relative to specific learning goals or outcomes, to redirect or refocus either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome.”

I lifted this bit on “information given to the learner” from my post on feedback from January 2016: “Feedback can “be about the output of the activity, the process of the activity, or the student’s management of their learning.” These three correspond roughly to 1. evaluation of a product, 2.  formative assessment and even 3. self-regulation respectively, all of which are ideally suited to Cooperative Learning activities.

First of all, because of the reflection and negotiation required by these three is built into any social activity, feedback is implicit…” Read more on Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning.


“An example during a Y5/6 Catch1Partner – two less able pupils who found each other.  When one could not answer the maths problem the other said ‘Shall I give you a clue’ and then proceeded to give a sensible clue so the other child could work out the answer!  Amazing given the children in question!”

– Lucy Bates, headteacher, Ormesby Village Junior School, December 2016. More.


4. Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.

From the original article: “… for feedback to be truly meaningful to students, they need to take ownership of it which may well mean not giving levels to a piece of work at all and instead just leaving comments for the student to reflect and act upon.”

I again refer to Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning.


5. (a) The steps needed to achieve a skill may look very different to the final skill itself.

From the article: “Deliberate practice asserts the benefit of breaking down a global skill into its constituent local parts and focusing on specific feedback and incremental improvement rather than a set of assessment criteria/performance descriptors that are “aimed at some vague overall improvement.”

Because Cooperative Learning puts the onus of learning on the learners, it, unfortunately, puts the onus of teaching on the teacher (Yes, go figure!): Effectiveness hinges upon precise modelling. Forget the guide on the side, et cetera. The key to success is clear step-by-step demonstration of what good practice looks like, replete with exact language and specific vocabulary.

Boss & Secretary (or, more politically correct, Sage-N-Scribe) pops to mind here. Setting up a science experiment: one student reads out the step-by-step process using relevant language, demonstrated by the teacher and scaffolded by relevant materials (but cannot touch the materials), the partner executes the orders, asking clarifying questions, but cannot act without instructions. (There’s life skills for you, right in the science lesson).

Or, converting fractions to decimals, or a past tense sentence into a present tense sentence, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There is almost no skill that cannot be broken down into component parts and said into relevant CLIPs.

(b). There is no such thing as developing a ‘general’ skill.

Here, I admit my total bafflement:

“… critical thinking is an essential part of any student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of the curriculum is often meaningless and ineffective. “

This sentence seems to claim it is even possible to teach thinking skills without anchoring them in specific contexts, which is as absurd as an attribute without an essence. I cannot imagine this is what is intended by protagonists of “general” skills. (But I’d be very eager to hear from anyone who can give me a practical example of how this would be done).


Kim#s cards

Attributes and essences. Cards by Kim, Norwich Primary Academy, 2016.


But, referring back to “So, what else can you tell me?” in Catch1Partner as discussed above, this sub-task would certainly promote thinking and communication skills, which could be described as general. But obviously, the question ties into very specific content, whether the flashcard question was about Roman numerals or a play by Shakespeare.

So, to reiterate, motivation, achievement, thinking skills, practical skills and associated vocabulary (with full differentiation included) – with no extra work or planning on the part of the teacher.


The Chemistry of Communication; Oracy Skills in Science (and everything else)

Mrs Naomi Hennah (@MrsHennah) of Northampton School for Boys has created a clear and concise “visual summary of the complexity of chemical discourse” to boost oracy skills and language acquisition in chemistry.


Some related articles

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss

Commenting on the famous Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, this article posits the structural approach as the most effective form of collaborative learning, bar none.

Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy; a note to Mr Peal

Student-Centred Learning in UK schools; Here be Dragons… Over the past month, I have been reading Mr Peal’s Progressively Worse with disturbed fascination.

Monitoring and real-time feedback in the Cooperative Learning classroom

Workshop debriefing: As I have states in numerous places, the candid verbalization of opinions during the debate gives teachers a unique insight into the knowledge and thought processes of each individual student as thet work through tasks and materials.



* * *

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Filed under Cooperative Learning, language teaching, science

Better Reading through Cooperative Learning

Charles Coddy Walker Academy and Werdelin Education invite our colleagues to attend two sixty-minute twilights on Better Reading and Better Writing through Cooperative Learning on April 18 and 25 respectively.

Have you ever been dismayed at students not grasping texts even after ample support and time to read them aloud in class? This CLIP (Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern) solves that problem in any subject. It helps pupils work their way through even very challenging materials so everyone understands and remembers what they read.

The day after attending, delegates will be able to deploy effective, yet simple, collaborative activities to promote reading – with no change to lesson content or objectives.

Reading together – more than the sum of parts

Next week’s session Better Reading presents a simple collaborative reading activity which ensures everyone understands and connects every paragraph before proceeding, integrates communicative and cognitive processes to facilitate memorization, and gives insight into the structure of the text.

better reading eventbrite (2)

It will also provide students with a host of ancillary skills, including reading aloud, pronunciation, identifying and verbalising the essence of each paragraph, and connecting meanings not only within the text, but its relationship to themselves and the world around them.  (Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman in Mosaic of Thought (1997), identified these three, text, self and world, as the main types of connections students make as they read).

As always, the CLIP will ensure high individual accountability and equal participation;   collaboration must never be an excuse to step out of the learning process. We also discuss  differentiation, assessment, written evidence of learning, effective monitoring, and feedback. Both sessions integrates vocabulary and SPaG, the writing session more so.

The day after attending, delegates will be able to deploy effective, yet simple, collaborative activities to promote reading – with no change to lesson content or objectives.

Why and how Cooperative Learning just works 

We have previously discussed how the DfE-promoted Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit rate collaborative strategies among the absolute top investment of Pupil Premium, giving as much as 5 months progress per year.

Furthermore, Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning  explores how Cooperative Learning seamlessly integrates Feedback, making it possible to reach a total of 8 months progress per pupil per year with an investment of as little as £5 in one-off costs.

These two sessions demonstrate how.


Only a limited number of spaces are available.

Book now on EventBrite: 

Better Reading through Cooperative Learning

18 Apr 2016 15:30

Better Writing through Cooperative Learning

25 Apr 2016 15:30
Charles Coddy Walker Academy 
Derby Street Lincoln Street, Walsall WS2 7BH, United Kingdom – View Map

Related reading:

Cooperate Be Literate

As mentioned in the previous post, a dream has come true for me. I am working with a highly experienced science teacher to discover how Cooperative Learning can further literacy skills in science from KS2 to University.


More on Cooperative Learning:

Results        |        Social skills        |        Community

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Filed under Cooperative Learning, CPD, events, get started with CL, language teaching

Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy; a note to Mr Peal

Student-Centred Learning in UK schools; Here be Dragons…

Over the past month, I have been reading Mr Peal’s Progressively Worse with disturbed fascination. For someone coming from the Scandinavian education system, with a very different ethos and political history, this book is an eye-opening insight into some of the visceral controversies over UK education, and a stern warning to any outsider attempting to enter that particular minefield.

Nevertheless, inspired by Andy  Thurnby’s (@atharby) brilliant article “English teaching and the problem with knowledge” I shall venture forth onto the battlefield waving my pass of diplomatic immunity.

Progressively worse

…does what it says on the tin?

As those who have enjoyed Socio(pathic) Skills; the dark tangent of Student-Centred Learning? and other related posts will know – and certainly my students will confirm – I agree with Mr Peal on a lot of basic issues: I absolutely do not accept that a 13-year old student and a 50-year old teacher are “equals”, or that “strict discipline and moral education are oppressive”, or that “hard knowledge” should not be taught.

My problem, rather, is one of semantics: Mr Peal’s use of terms such as “child-centred learning,” “collaborative learning,” “enquiry,” “21st Century Skills,” “social contructivism” actually prompted me to spend the first ten minutes of last month’s PGCE session at the Institute of Education defining the difference between structural Cooperative Learning and the classroom chaos and abysmal teaching the book describes under these headings.

Some crass examples from the book include a history lesson about the the South-North escape routes used by American slaves where pupils baking biscuits using an original slave recipe is claimed to be “…promoted by child-centred educators as an engaging and memorable way to learn…” and an English lesson where acting out scenes from Of Mice and Men was seen as an effective way to teach Steinbeck (p. 190). In Denmark we would call that Home Science and Drama respectively.

In his introduction, Mr Peal calls for a balanced view on teacher-centred vs. student-centred learning and then goes of on a well-documented 298 page rant against the latter. In the following, I would like to pour oil on troubled waters by presenting the novel view that:

  1. social constructivism (as opposed to rote learning) is simply a tool which in some cases may be used, in some cases should not be used, and in some cases must be used and
  2. that social constructivism may, and should, be seen as a distinct issue, apart from the student-centred vs. teacher-centred discussion.

Scenario One; boards to brains or vice versa

To better understand the issue in a practical classroom situation, let us examine an example where both teacher-centred and student-centred learning are viable options. In this MFL example, we need to teach passé simple of French verbs. (Think past tense –d and –ed in English).

The teacher might simply explain while writing out rules and examples on the board (5-7 minutes), followed by one or two standard concept checking questions  in open class (3-5 minutes) – and then hand out the worksheets. Less than 15 minutes of Talk&Chalk – simple and effective, at the right time with the right class.

Alternatively, the teacher might do this by writing only examples on the board with no explanation (2 minutes), then giving students one minute to work out the rules individually, followed by two minutes to compare and negotiate findings with a shoulder partner. Only then does the teacher write the rules on board, etc. etc. – but here, the concept checking questions are based on what was overheard when unobtrusively monitoring partner interaction.

Again less than 15 minutes, including student-centred social constructivism using Lyman’s simple, timed, tightly structured Think-Pair-Share – equally simple and effective, at the right time with the right class. (Now add a written element to the Think-step, and you’ve secured Ofstedish evidence).

Scenario Two; why drill when you can frack?

Then there are examples where social constructivism makes no sense, for several reasons, the obvious example being teaching of no-nonsense facts, e.g. the conjugation of faire, Henry VIII’s birth date, etc.

Another, and less obvious and much more interesting example, is provided by Andy Tharby (@atharby) in his must-read “English teaching and the problem with knowledge” relating to the – often – extremely superficial reflections by students being asked to analyse and interpret deep texts, because they simply lack the cultural baggage needed for decoding.

Mr Tharby writes: “I think that, for many years, I have been asking the questions before securing the knowledge needed to answer them. The solution might be to teach interpretations of a text as discreet knowledge.”

In both these cases, “lighting-the-fire-not-filling-a-pail-social-constructivism” is ineffective: In the first example –  memorising those famous historical key dates and names, difficult spellings, or the 50 most common French irregular verbs – because of the high volume of the knowledge. In the second – memorising interpretations of Of Mice and Men and Othello as packs of discreet knowledge –  because of the high density of the knowledge.

There’s no way to time-effectively negotiate your way to this information, so why would you employ social constructivism? –  à la mode or not, it is simply not good teaching practice here. But, before Mr Peal likes this post on Twitter for supporting traditional teaching, the next question arises: Must leaving social constructivism make the lesson a boring, teacher-centred drill?

And this is where I feel Progressively Worse sets up an entirely false dichotomy; simple interaction strategies such as Catch-1-Partner let students process and memorise high volumes of hard information in an engaging fashion. Using Q&A flashcards – question on one side (When and where was Henry VIII born?), answer on the other (28 June 1491, Greenwich Palace) –  in Catch-1-Partner for 5-10 minutes at the start of every lesson, an incredible volume of information sinks in, especially as the knowledge is integrated and operationalised through other learning materials and strategies, such as guided reading, worksheets, etc.

For those new to this blog, here is a course slide with the practical steps of Catch-1-Partner with materials:

C1P slide

Enquiry & Immersion C1P

Note that Catch-1-Partner is only one of several CLIPs (Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns) which work with flashcards. Also remember that interaction may be peppered with French/Tudor greetings and pleasantries, complex sentences based on gambits may be added, etc. 

In the case of interpretations of texts, as Mr Tharby suggests, cards might well be a size A4 per novel, or a single novel might have a full flashcard set, but the interaction steps of Catch-1-Partner are the same: Students are milling around, exchanging cards, teaching each other, learning; it’s active, fun and engaging, there is a sense of winning and achievement as more and more cards are instantly recognised, and, in the students’ minds, the teacher is not there.

Yet I think even Mr Peal and Sir Michael would be hard pressed to label  this type of brutal rote learning “progressive,” “lefty,” “child-centred,” or “social constructionist.”*

Student-Centred or not? Who cares: As teachers who use CLIPs systematically will attest, there is an instant measurable effect on attainment. We need only refer to the Sutton Trust Report and our work with Stalham Academy.

Through brutal, repetitive rote-learning, camouflaged by the excitement of interaction and movement, structural Cooperative Learning facilitates teaching of requisite building blocks of hard knowledge. (We would call it Fracking for its effectiveness compared to standard drilling techniques, except that, as a side-effect, it actually improves the (classroom) environment. More on CL and social skills here).

What we say is that CLIPs such as Catch-1-Partner, as expounded in the Skills & Mastery CPD course at Stalham Academy, allows this “focussing on the mastery of these small, discreet items knowledge in the short term,” referred to by Mr Tharby.

In the long term, this lays the foundation for, in the case of English, higher level analysis and interpretation, in the same way that vocabulary and grammatical rules would provide a foundation for speaking a foreign language fluently.

And that is the focus of the next post in this series: What happens when Dorothy leaves Kansas, or Mr Andersson unplugs from the Matrix? When students are on their own in the uncharted territory of an unknown novel, or discover they did not learn Parisian slang in MFL, or that everything they have learned as essentially true is – perhaps? – a social construct.

Follow on Twitter for Scenario Three, which I have, with a nod to Mr Andersson dubbed:

 “When there is no Spoon.” 


Click image for link to this scene from The Matrix. 

Can’t eat  your Christmas Pudding without one. Can’t speak French without verbs. Merry Christmas.


* For more on Sir Michael, please see Lefty Child-Centred Learning, indeed!



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Filed under Cooperative Learning, Didactic methodologies, Education policy, language teaching, other teaching methods

Ghosts of the NILE

These past few weeks I have had the stressed pleasure of doing the Cambridge CELTA at the Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE), a school that I do warmly recommend for it’s professionalism, beautiful setting and really nice staff – that sense of being in a small old village library really took the edge of the intensity of the course.

It has been an exhilarating experience and if we assume that Cambridge in any way represents a solid cutting edge of language teaching, cooperative learning is not a way to teach language – it’s simply another word for language learning per se.

Here I have been forced to realize that – for all my insistence on cooperative learning strategies to every tired colleague – I  need to radicalize what can and what should be done with group interaction.

From Day One’s tutor observation in an upper intermediary English class, I scribbled BE A GHOST! across my notes and in every single Teaching Practice Lesson since I have been struggling to give that phantom a form. Hopefully with the course now winding down, there will be an opportunity to share some of these processes here at

By the way … is available…?

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