Category Archives: Tips & tricks

cheap and nasty things to ease CL

Making best use of … Leadership; Coaching & Cooperative Learning.

Cooperative Learning makes learning visible. But, perhaps more importantly to senior leadership teams, it also makes visible their key area of responsibility, namely the teaching.

Were I to sum up Cooperative Learning in one word, it would be empowerment. Empowerment first and foremost of every pupil; self-confidence, courage, curiosity, choice, to name a few; empowerment of teachers (and their support staff) by making all the tick-boxes of outstanding teaching available in a simple, manageable manner; and empowerment of senior leadership teams (SLT) by facilitating their key role as guides to good teaching.

It may be obvious that empowerment of teachers is a prerequisite for the empowerment of pupils. But I venture here that empowerment of leaders in their role is in some ways a prerequisite for the empowerment of teachers themselves.

The responsibility of leadership

This article discusses how Cooperative Learning may empower all levels of your school community by working from the top down. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, and certainly something which needs to be tweaked to reflect the ethos of each school.

The fundamental assumption in this text is that 1) you are a leader because you have more to give – perhaps a more comprehensive educational background, more experience, better communication skills, patience, or decisiveness, to name some – and that 2) most of your staff could actually benefit from you, and actually wish to.

Empowerment via the top-down approach has several aspects. School leaders struggle with an overload of tasks which push the focus away from the raison d’etre of any school: every-day excellent teaching and learning in the classroom:


Headteacher's priorities.PNG

For those who use the Eisenhower/Covey matrix.


Given schools only exists for the sake of teaching and learning, and the documented positive impact of coaching on teachers professional development,* you would think that weekly lesson observations of every teacher by an experienced leader would not just be a given, it would be a right, the violation of which could bring the NUT down on the school’s head.

However, learning walks/lesson observations are often draining because outcomes seldom match the effort; objectives are not clear and feedback is not practical and, as a consequence, observations often result in vague hints which are seldom followed up, rather than instantly applicable advice that actually improves life for teachers and pupils from the next day and onwards. (Which only increases the sense among teachers observations are not about them being raised, but being judged).

We have previously discussed how Cooperative Learning has the capacity to effectively turn fluffy concepts of “secure more pupil engagement”  into practical reality. The question is, how does the school take ownership of this capacity?

Why coach leadership

The answer is to turn leaders into just that: Trusted, inspiring guides, who master Cooperative Learning enough to take the torch from the consultant and drive their school’s vision. So, rather than having me come into classrooms following CPD to observe and coach teachers, I began coming into classrooms to observe and coach school leaders doing the same.

There are numerous benefits to this, four of which are listed below.


1. Improve Cooperative Learning and basic teaching skills

Teaching becomes visible through Cooperative Learning. Here it is important to grasp that weakness in the understanding of teaching is not the same as weakness in the execution of the Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns (CLIPs).

I specifically coach to maximise the benefit of Cooperative Learning – a clear objective with clear outcomes that I feel confident I can secure during one lesson/feedback session, and although I deal with matters which impinge on the quality of Cooperative Learning (e.g. timing and directive modelling) any underlying deep or subject-specific issues (e.g. misapprehension of objectives, or inappropriate levelling), is best dealt with in an ongoing process with responsible school leaders.

So by coaching SLT rather than the individual teacher, the benefit of the coaching is much more ongoing, comprehensive, and cohesive; and here, the clarity of Cooperative Learning will not only disclose gaps in teaching skills but will give very practical tools to close them, presented in a respectful, and perhaps less direct, manner.

2. Put victims at peace

Most teachers are used to being masters of their own classrooms and, as do most people, dislike the sense of being observed and judged, even if they are brilliant. By focusing attention on the performance of leadership in the role of coaches, it is possible to secure accountability and improvement while being more respectful of teachers’ integrity.



3. Fast-track to independence

By turning SLT into capable Cooperative Learning coaches, the school becomes independent of further external consulting, which is, of course, the ultimate goal for the school – and for me a sign I have done my job right.

4. The learner becomes the master

The practical coaching of SLT will enable leaders who are so disposed – there is at least one of those in every school – to move Cooperative Learning to a whole new level, tweaking, experimenting, combining, Stalham Academy being an obvious case study. But this cannot be done without mastering of the basics. “Wax on, wax off,” for those who remember the Karate Kid’s ordeals (Youtube).

Stages of lesson observations

There are several ways to approach Cooperative Learning lesson observations. The following discusses options of (A) Before, (B) During and (C) After lessons – with (B) obviously being indispensable.

(A) Before the observation

Ideally, the teacher presents the rationale behind the lesson plan prior to the observation (whether to me directly, or to a member of SLT being trained by me). This presentation includes shared reflections on pacing, choice of materials, assumptions about previous learning, securing evidence, as one normally would, but specifically how the CLIPs support this. “Why this CLIP and not that? Which sub-tasks fit in the objective? What target language are you requiring them to use?” For practical reasons, we usually do this in a break immediately preceding the lesson.

A special benefit of this approach is that I can confirm that the teacher grasps where and how to use the CLIPs in the context of the lesson, so that the observation may focus solely on the execution of the CLIP itself. By coordinating when CLIPs are used, it is conceivable to observe up to three separate classes within the span of a lesson slot.



(B) During the observation

With the coach(es) present in the classroom as the lesson takes place, there are two options: one is passive observation for later feedback, the other is active guidance as the lesson proceeds. As Cooperative Learning turns the focus away from the teacher, it is possible to have a real-time conversation about what is happening in the heat of the moment. For example, a reminder to monitor the whole class and not get sucked into the individual pupil’s issues is a classic.*

(An alternative version of this is to watch a video recording of the lesson together, where the teacher can see himself from the outside and discuss his observations with the coach. However, there is a risk that too much detail is lost in a video, as the coach cannot direct attention to individual pupils or teams).

(C) After the observation

It is crucial that the feedback following the lesson is a two-way process, respectful, yet honest. When coaching leaders, I usually run the feedback in the following stages.

1. Alone with me, the senior leader gives her own take on the Cooperative Learning within the lesson, and I fill in the gaps, add to the precision of language, or correct errors. Where relevant, we discuss the relationship to teaching skills and we use a checklist to make sure bases are covered. This checklist is provided to all staff during training (and every teacher is expected to laminate it and chain it to his wrist). Sometimes, the oral feedback is prepared with me playing the role as the teacher.

2. The observed teacher enters and gives his own subjective perspective. (“God, I was horrible!” is not an uncommon – and incorrect – opening statement, which reflects the strain of being monitored more than anything else). What is important that the teacher is allowed time and space to reflect on himself, and come up with his own solutions, first and foremost.

3. The leader being coached then uses this as a sounding board for the feedback, rephrasing it as needed to match, tweak, or correct the perspectives of the teacher. There is, of course, no reason to repeat problems that the teacher flagged up himself, except to note his insight, as realistic self-assessment is one of the single most valuable skills one may have.

4. Now comes the important part: the practical application of the feedback. This means picking the most important few issues, and presenting solutions in an actionable form. An example is given in the following section.

5. The teacher is offered time discuss with me directly, with or without the leader present.

6. I give the leader ia set of final comments on her interaction with the teacher. This will usually focus on the clarity of her message. Hence the extreme example below.


Exemplary feedback

Here is an example of what that could look like, with the wrapping peeled away:

“You pointed out yourself that you find it difficult to connect back to previous lessons. So, what we have agreed is that, starting tomorrow, every lesson will begin with a such-and-such CLIP, staged just like this, using these metacognitive questions about their prior knowledge, and securing this type of written evidence. The CLIP will last minimum five minutes, excluding staging, and you will use a on-screen timer to make your two Asperger’s pupils feel safe. You will dedicate yourself to monitoring, leaving the overall control of the class to your TA, who you will have carefully instructed in this task. A specific target for you is to stop waffling and to bring your modelling down to 45 seconds, giving more time to put the pupils in control of their own learning. So next week, I will pop in and have a look. We’ll take it from there. Any questions?”


Soddin’ Growth Mindset!

I intentionally stripped the fluff of the example above, because I want the content of the feedback to be crystal clear. Two points here: Number One, the “action plan” is the result of a dialogue between the teacher and the leader during the coaching session. Number Two, I do not, and I do not ask leaders to, speak that way to staff. However, behind the coating, that is the level of specificity you need to arrive at. If you find it a challenge to empower yourself in your role as leader to do that, consider asking other leaders in your hub or trust on how they do it.

Because, as uncomfortable and un-British as it may feel to risk stepping on people’s toes (I’ve actually had people apologise to me about the English weather!) just remember that you are doing the teacher and the pupils, both entrusted to your care, a severe disservice by not bringing out the very best in your staff.

As a Dane, I come from a very direct culture where many a casual conversation would be considered extremely rude by the British. Yet, one benefit to this obnoxious forthrightness is that it negates the confusion between what is professional, realistic feedback and what is a personal judgement to which one is entitled to respond emotionally. Those two are not the same.

On that note, ponder this: With smiling faces, we teachers drill into a pupil standing nailed to the whiteboard and feeling utterly humiliated in front of their whole class, that “It is GREAT to make mistakes because we can learn and grow!” Yet, some of us flatly refuse to rectify our shortcomings with a trusted colleague in a private setting, though we affect the futures of thousands of children over the course of our careers?

There is no real reason to feel judged in learning from colleagues, and certainly, there is no shame in learning from a colleague with superior skills or more experience. So, in summary, a trusting, collaborative ethos is not just a requisite for children to learn, but for adults as well. Coming full circle, the capacity to learn and improve is the basis of all empowerment. For pupils, teaching staff, and leaders.


Recognise this?



NB: This article has been in the pipeline for a while, and was inspired by a novel take on coaching by a school I am now working with. Here, rather than sending leaders on learning walks, teachers are paired up with a sparring partner, who take turns observing and coaching each other. This opens an opportunity to dedicated use of Cooperative Learning to share practice and experience between those pairs and keep leadership informed in an informal and non-threatening manner. I am hoping to write an ongoing series on this theme. (And learn something new in the process).

You can follow on Twitter or join the mailing list for updates.

Also, benefit from related articles written for leadership on best-practice.

* * *




*) “The reflection promoted by effective mentoring and coaching approaches in turn encourages a collaborative learning culture in organisations. For schools, this is particularly important, as it may alleviate some of the sense of professional isolation….”

From Mentoring And Coaching For Professionals: A Study Of The Research Evidence, P. Lord, et al., National Foundation for Educational Research, 2008, p. viii,  (accessed 17 September 2017).
**) Because the learning is so in-your-face, it is almost impossible not to step in. But unless the (indispensable!) TA is present to keep a bird’s eye view, this is not advisable.



Leave a comment

Filed under Cooperative Learning, get started with CL, Leadership advice, Tips & tricks

ASE London #1: Out of the Question …

It was a pleasure to attend yesterday’s Association of Science Education’s London and Essex Summer Conference “Supporting Learning for all in Science” at the Institute of Education, London. For someone like me, whose method deliberately targets achievement gaps, the title alone made coming irresistible.

A special thank you to Sheila of ASE, who virtually singlehandedly made it all happen, and to everyone who took interest in my impromptu stall. You should now all have received a welcome mail to COGS.

Due to the content void nature of Cooperative Learning, though specific examples here are taken straight from STEM KS3+, the theory connecting CL with questioning techniques, and the cooperative activities themselves, benefit equally in any subject and key stage. You will also discover what a milk float is.

Questions in Context

I know Dr Lyn Hayes, who invited me to the conference, from our work with the INSPIRE STEM PGCE training programme at Imperial College in January. I have previously explored the relationship between Cooperative Learning and STEM with Ben Rogers at the 2016 Annual ASE Conference at Birmingham University, where we presented the course Great Reading, Great Learning, and lately with Math leads in Leicester for SDSA, where the enhancement of Singapore Maths through Cooperative Learning was made very clear by delegates themselves. (More information here).

At yesterday’s conference, I prioritised  “Developing good questions for STEM learning” with Mary Whitehouse of University of York Science Education Group and “The Language of Mathematics in Science” with Richard Boohan & Roni Malek. The regular reader of this blog will recognise the obvious connection to my planned work with Mrs Hennah on oracy skills in science.

My final top choice was unfortunately cancelled; as I am involved in a Strategic Funding Bid to close gender gaps in Maths, another of my top workshop choices from the programme was “Improving Gender Balance” with Nicky Thomas from the Institute of Physics. Hopefully next time?


Cooperative Learning & Questions

Mary Whitehouse (@MaryUYSEG)  opened her keynote with the seemingly ubiquitous reference to Hattie’s research on effect size, recapping the impact of assessment (0.46), spaced practice (0.71) and feedback to the teacher (0.73) – all of which, as followers of this blog will know, are integral (assessment and feedback) or easily facilitated (spaced practice) by Cooperative Learning.


Specifically, I was very happy with her quote from Hattie: “Structuring class sessions to entice, teach and listen to students asking questions to students is very powerful.” If that is not a description of Cooperative Learning and three of its main outcomes,  it’s not Cooperative Learning. I will attempt to exemplify in the following commentary on Whitehouse’s workshop.

Why asking the right questions is crucial should hopefully be something all teachers are aware of; what is less obvious perhaps is the support Cooperative Learning offers in situations where questions are poor or just plain intermediate in quality – which may well be the majority of questions in the average lessons.

First of all, if you cannot have quality, you can always have quantity. The simultaneous engagement with your questions by every single pupil in the classroom, and the stacking afforded by such basic Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns as Think-Pair-Share (discussed below), means any ‘less good’ question will be dressed up in peer-to-peer feedback and support and automatic differentiation through negotiation. (Who knows, you might get lucky and get the metacognitive comment “I think this question is stupid, because…”).

Also, since every single pupil is presenting their understanding, the assessment element is very strong. So, while the poor question posited might only have half the effect of a good question in the same cooperative activity, it still has a substantially higher impact than that question asked from the board and discussed with a lower ability pupil who is off on a tangent, while the rest of the class of 32 pupils nod off (Dare we say 3100% higher impact, mathematicians?).

Vice versa, good questions enhance Cooperative Learning dramatically. Because Cooperative Learning is nothing but a precise, surgical delivery tool for your input, the more powerful the input, the more powerful the impact. And, again, assessment is improved in correspondence with the quality of the questions asked.

So, with no further ado, onto Mary Whitehouse’s presentation  “Developing good questions for STEM learning”.



Mary and the Word

There are many benefits to making up questions, not least the fact that it forces teachers to think about which outcome they want and helps crystallise it. Specifically, Mary pointed out that looking closely at which answers your question might elicit is a good measure of the quality of your question in reference to you learning objective.

As we mentioned in the last of the articles on Stalham Academy, you can stage and execute a perfect cooperative activity which has absolutely no value to the objectives of the lesson. One of the ways this can happen is precisely the question you pick for the Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern, whether it be a Think-Pair-Share or Boss & Secretary. It is akin to a doctor who performs his surgery perfectly but on the wrong organ.

Among the things one should also be wary of when writing questions is whether any additional context is needed. Mary had some of us chuckling when she gave the example of pupils with a Chinese background responding to an exam question starting with the words “The batteries in the milk float are…” I chuckled somewhat less than others, as I , poor foreigner that I am, didn’t know what a milk float is. (She suggested trying “electric car” instead).

Milk float

Milk float courtesy of

Finally, and especially in the case of multiple choice questions, ask yourself if pupils could get the correct answer for the wrong reason – such as luck or misunderstanding?


The good multiple choice question 

As Mary pointed out, understanding the purpose of your question is the key to success. For example, “diagnostic questions” test pupils’ understanding to better guide teaching. If a Y7 teacher automatically assumes her new pupils can distinguish “force” and “energy” a whole world of mess opens up. Multiple-choice is a very simple, and easily assessable, way of checking precise understanding of concepts (We have already discussed closed vs open questions).

Mary Whitehoude, diagnostic questions

Here, Mary demonstrated an alternative, collaborative, way to present multiple-choice questions which really struck a chord with me. One of the main reasons Cooperative Learning yields 5 to 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year is the feedback element: Opening discussions between pupils give teachers insight into the thinking process that produces the wrong answers.  As any teacher will be aware, there is often a weird logic behind pupils’ misconceptions that need to be recognised before it can be challenged appropriately. An unfortunate example is found in the next instalment of this when we get to “Confidence Grids.”

The following item was developed to show how GCSE exam questions can be converted into diagnostic questions: The words in the speech bubbles are based on information from the OCR GCSE mark scheme and the examiner’s report:

The question is: “How can very high temperature lead to death?”

How can a very high temperature lead to death

By referring to the examiner’s report, you are sure the wrong answers are common misconceptions that you need to weed out.


Getting more out of it with Cooperative Learning

Now, it is entirely possible to present this task on individual pieces of paper, give them a couple of minutes to think and tick the ones they agree with and collect the evidence, but Mary’s point was obviously that one should use this in group work.

However, there is group work and there is Cooperative Learning. Group work risks loss of accountability, equal participation, off-task behaviour, etc. as discussed in multiple previous posts.

Therefore, in the following, I want to demonstrate the benefit of dropping this IWB task into a tightly timed Think-Pair-Share (e.g. one minute to Think, two minutes to Pair and three minutes to Share)With an enforced written element delineated at each stage in the form of “I/my partner and I/our team think X is correct/incorrect, because…”, you achieve the following:

  • get each student to capture their baseline understanding in writing.
  • get each student to practice writing a concise argument, and orally presenting it.
  • promote and train a scientific mindset.
  • acquire written evidence of each student’s specific misconceptions of ideas as well as concepts.
  • ascertain fluency (e.g. high level pupils will produce multiple answers and less capable pupils perhaps only one or two).
  • save plenary feedback time by letting pupils correct some of their wilder misconceptions with their peers.
  • check and improve the precision of subject vocabulary and general language.
  • get written and oral evidence of misconceptions and their corrections as pairs negotiate their individual findings.
  • acquire profound insight into the reasons for any misconceptions by unobtrusively monitoring discussions, securing effective, targeted next steps.
  • get written evidence of self-confidence: which pupils can stand their ground in an argument and who folds, even if he is right. (This needs to be dealt with as it is a matter of too much or too little self-confidence in the pair, both of which impact negatively on personal relationships – think PSHE for which every teacher should feel responsible – and scuttle calm analytical thinking required in science).
  • Get an on-the-spot written summary of each group’s understanding as the final Sharing stage will be the result of combined thinking and debating in each group.
  • feed back this data straight into the current lesson, because eight groups in a standard size class of 32 reduce the amount of data you need to process by a factor of four.
  • avoid marking
  • instilled confidence and team cohesion, as any plenary responses from individual pupils will represent a group effort, saving much humiliation (and recognising the value of collaboration which is indispensable given the complexity of modern science).
  • save time on plenary feedback, as you already know where the trouble spots are.
  • and a whole lot of other things, including automatic differentiation, positive peer pressure, social skills, language acquisition, etc., etc., etc. But that’s just basic Cooperative Learning for you.

And as Mary pointed out, student work is a great resource to acquire further inspiration for questions.

(For schools who have been through my CPD: We have discussed the cons and pros of Think-Pair-Share vs Meet-in-the-Middle. Both could be used here, but the benefit of that extra layer the pair element gives  before they come together I think is a case for TPS. Again, you know you objectives, students and materials best. Cooperative Learning must never be a straitjacket).

Disclaimer: This articles represents my own limited understanding of Mary Whitehouse’s workshop, and does not claim to include all elements or accurately reflect her presentation.


Get notifications of related posts on Twitter (to include Predict-Explain-Observe-Explain and confidence grids, among other things).



Filed under Cooperative Learning, events, get started with CL, science, STEM, Tips & tricks

Stalham Academy, What Went Right? Lesson#2: Dive in Head first.

This is the second instalment of the Stalham Academy series, which investigates how a reeling Norfolk primary in special measures could reach UK top-500 in two years – for a £900 CPD investment.

In the previous post, we discussed the importance of knowing what you want. This second post examines the steps from the first CPD session to effective deployment of Cooperative Learning in the classrooms.

The Skills & Mastery course was delivered in three blocks of two hours after school, rather than one big, mind-numbing 6-hour inset. Not only does this mean there is no cost for cover, the bite-size format helps ensure no-one chokes.

It also distributes the cost over several months. At Stalham Academy, we did three CLIPs per session, 24 September 2014, 3 December 2014 and 11 February 2015, starting with the more versatile and working towards the more targeted, complex  CLIPs as teachers found their footing between sessions. My objective is always that whatever is trained is applicable the following day.

My objective is always that whatever is trained is applicable the following day. Because Andrew Howard had a vision for his school, and had taken the time to attentively go through the “instruction manual” with me, he was way ahead of the curve on this.

Mr Howard had, and has, a fundamental understanding that the Teaching & Learning is the core product of any school and that nice buildings, interactive whiteboards, intelligent assessment and budget systems, etc. are mere ancillaries to this.

Rather than sit in his office meeting out orders like some Lord Kitchener he did what real leaders do. They lead from the front. He actively used the CLIPs in his own teaching, working with Ms Gillespie and other SLT to quickly establish the best practice that would drive the vision he had already outlined to staff. He used what he learned from his own classes, and based on experiences he and his team demonstrated and observed lessons, coached, advised, and supported teachers, creating not only an engaged and excited shared learning environment, but a ditto teaching environment. And don’t teachers deserve that?

Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns are comprised of very simple steps, but precisely therein lies their complexity. Consider Think-Pair-Share, often attributed to Frank Lyman. Many, many teachers use it all the time – but most could massively improve the outcome of this activity by being aware of their timing of the stages, their modelling of specific outcomes, written evidence, and language, their use of sub-tasks, etc.

180 seconds of well-executed, targeted Think-Pair-Share – 30 seconds to think in absolute silence, jotting down 2-3 key terms, 60 seconds to discuss in pairs and 90 seconds minutes to share, directly with one partner only to secure accountability – will get you more than fifteen minutes of the sloppy, slippery and nebulous  version of the exact same activity.

This is why the more experienced members of senior leadership need to be in the classrooms. Not to micro-manage, judge and spy, but to give brief feedback that is practical and applicable.

Because Cooperative Learning is “instant coffee” outstanding teaching (just add pupils and stir) it does not take complex feedback to get really amazing results from teachers – even those who were on the verge of leaving the profession.

Essentially, observing SLT members simply draw attention to the checklist issued to everyone during the CPD – in 95% of the cases, the reason things are not optimal is because the simple basics were ignored, e.g.  the task is unsuitable for the CLIP, such as asking a closed question in a Think-Pair-Share: “What is the answer to the first task on your paper; 45 minus 56? Just turn to your (A partners) when you are done, and then to your (B partners)” 

Try this instead:

“You have one minute to work out as many of the tasks as you can on your worksheet, then you have 30 seconds to compare your method and results with your (A partners) and 30 seconds to share with your (B partners). Resolve any disagreements. If your team has resolved any and all differences when we finish, the whole team puts your hands up. I will time you. Go!”

Differentiation, because HAPs can keep working in Think stage – with written evidence. Then compare results, to promote language, higher level thinking, peer learning. Same result, good, next one. Not same, why?! Your partner didn’t do a single one? Help him work it out as best you can, or help each other (“Bob, the negative number is the larger of the two, you see? So the answer should be negative”) generating automatic, personalised and highly differentiated peer learning and feedback -across the whole class simultaneously.

The higher ability especially benefits from the metacognitive element, as s/he reflects on her own understanding to make it accessible to struggling peers, but in order to ask a relevant question, the lower ability pupils need to formulate what precisely they don’t understand. Feedback and Metacognition give 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year, according to the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit.

The “hands-up” add a sometimes beneficial competitive element. In the end, the teams that have their hands down are the ones you need to support. (But then you already knew that because you were monitoring, weren’t you?)

That took about 30 seconds to stage, and two minutes to execute. And all the observer needs to say is: “Always let Think-Pair-Share task volume be open-ended, and make sure they investigate why there is sometimes a difference between results. Otherwise good.” 

Quoting the Toolkit, “…it is important to get the details right.” And this is where SLT and the (acting) head stepped up at Stalham Academy in the weeks following the CPD.

Coming up: Ordered deployment or everything at once?  Stay updated on Twitter.

Interviews with Stalham Academy staff here. Reflections from senior leadership from Stalham and elsewhere here.

*** is the business end of



1 Comment

Filed under Cooperative Learning, CPD, get started with CL, Tips & tricks

Stalham Academy, What Went Right? Lesson#1: Getting your Head straight.

Even in a Formula One racing car, it all comes down to the driver. If they weren’t so skilled, Stalham Academy’s senior leadership should be wearing fireproof suits and crash helmets.

This is the first in a series of articles discussing how Stalham Academy used Cooperative Learning to get from special measures to top 500 with nothing but the 6-hour Skills & Mastery course.

Cooperative Learning will always generate very, very good teaching if you follow a few basic rules in your classrooms. However, before we get to what these are, there is the issue of Senior Leadership.

(For schools in the  Norfolk Better to Best network especially – given the increased focus on leadership in relation to teaching and learning – this first article is a must).

Make sure to help us pick the right content for the upcoming webinar on Cooperative Learning, fill out this 60-second questionnaire. Link found at the bottom of this page.


What to do with something that can do everything?

As an external visitor to schools, I don’t walk in and tell teachers what to do. I believe they know their strengths, styles, learners, subjects and resources far better than I. Rather, I give a hands-on demonstration of how a set of content-free Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns (CLIPs) generate instant outstanding student-centred learning. I then hammer home that they are not required to – and indeed should not – use Cooperative Learning all the time in every lesson. I do everything to avoid delivering a straitjacket system. Cooperative Learning will only, in fact, do what you want it to when you want.

But precisely this “what you want” may be the head’s Achilles heel; what Senior Leadership chooses to do with Cooperative Learning after the training will in most cases determine what your school gets out of it. This holds true for Cooperative Learning as much as for any other CPD. We all know about bad habits and the gravity pull towards default. So what did Stalham Academy do right to avoid the black hole of bad habits?

Getting to grips with gravity

Andrew Howard, then acting head of Stalham Academy, decided to bring the school out of special measures virtually overnight, and so he did. But certain other schools have not achieved lesser goals in spite of running more CPD.

The advice that follows is based on certain assumptions that I hold:

First, I assume you want to work with me because you have some recognition of what Cooperative Learning can do. On the surface, it is true Cooperative Learning is “simply another strategy among many to get students talking.” But in fact, this is similar the now-famous 1943 statement by the then Director of IBM, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” That was not one of IBMs finer moments.

Second, I assume that Senior Leadership is to be held entirely responsible for the school – its ethos, results, staff retention, materials, the lot. If anything goes wrong, it is on them. Not poor teachers, not misbehaved children, not the lack of an IT-guy. At the very end, it’s all on the head.

Have you got a head on your shoulders?

If the school is the body, SLT is the nervous system. But what is the nervous system without, precisely, the head.

If yours is like most schools, the head navigates the complex role of soul doctor, mediator, and visionary, while constantly risking having its higher level thinking side-tracked by tasks it should really not be doing. When you drive, you do not consciously give commands to your foot to press the clutch or to your hand to shift gears. Bits of the nervous system do that for you. Rather, your head has the overview of the direction and potential traffic jams – It makes the life-and-death choices at the wheel.

Thus the first condition of Stalham’s success is the front line leadership of Andrew Howard.

From our first conversation, even without understanding in detail what Cooperative Learning was, he knew what he wanted it to do. Once we had outlined and delivered the first 2-hour slot of CPD, he followed it up with stick and carrot, guiding, nurturing, and challenging his teachers, observing them and coaching them, refining their use of the CLIPs, identifying lesson plan objectives, producing and organising targeted resources, etc.

Parent meeting Andrew Howard lesson presentation

Mr Howard in action, Stalham Academy, 2015.

Right for Success Trust hit the jackpot when they secured Glenn Russell to head the school. I know many an incumbent headteacher who would have walked in and made his mark by undoing all current programmes to make way for his own ideas. Not so with Glenn; for him, the children came first, and he correctly assessed, as he said in an interview “…the teaching is very, very good.” He simply brought his superior education and experience to bear, further refining and integrating data tracking and assessment, complementing and strengthening Andrew Howard’s in-class initiatives.

Problems & Solutions

In summary, this is Lesson One for schools wanting to copy Stalham’s success:

  1. Know what you want to achieve and tell me.
  2. Follow up the deployment of the CPD in the classroom.

As for number one, aside from the initial meeting, which is part and parcel of any budding relationship, I have begun to offer headteachers help to turn vision into flesh and bones. Not necessarily because they are not good heads, but because they are busy, swamped, and I should make their life easier. One of the brilliant things about Cooperative Learning is that once experienced, its application is so practical and its outcomes so delineated it’s almost like working with lego brick (or just “legos” as they say here in Norfolk). It very quickly gives SLT and governors a roadmap, with clear signposts to guide direction and measure the progress of roll-out.

As for number two, I assume that observing and coaching the men and women directly responsible for teaching is an embedded routine, and if not, it should be. Because the CLIPs are all about practical application, it is very easy for an observer to check they are being deployed in classrooms.  Remember that delivery is usually in short twilights so you can focus on one or at most two CLIPs per time. However, because of the incredible versatility of CLIPs, you need to break up the first couple into manageable chunks. Each one is a Swiss Army Knife in its own right. You need to distinguish all the tools, to pull them out at the right time and in the right order for the job. Are you looking for assessment? Do this. Formative or summative? Do that. Do you want written evidence? Do this. Etc.

So, in response to the needs of specific schools, I have spent time developing a “Deployment Plan” to further help SLT secure successful deployment of Cooperative Learning without having to do extra work. Rather than doing everything at once all over the place, this plan presents objectives with crystal clear success criteria which allows SLT to track each teacher and give him or her the support needed. By making sure teachers experience success, the element of empowerment is sufficient motivation for the teacher and the students to fuel success.

Small successful steps where everyone feels on board are preferable to arm-waving ambitions with big failures. But even the greatest journey starts with small steps.

So if you choose Cooperative Learning, trust you have made the right decision, work with people to feel safe getting onboard and press the speeder – gently, but firmly.

For next instalment follow on twitter. is the business end of

For video interviews with SLT and staff, visit the Gallery.



Please help us get our Webinar right, thanks:

Tea Party & Webinar – what would you like?

Please help us make a free webinar a success by participating in a 60-second online survey.

1 Comment

Filed under Cooperative Learning, CPD, get started with CL, Tips & tricks

Better (Talk4)Writing through Cooperative Learning

The last of three open CPD sessions in Walsall took place yesterday at North Walsall Academy (previously Charles Coddy Walker).

For the benefit of attendees at these events, and schools who have gone through the Skills & Mastery or 21st century British Muslim courses, this short post demonstrates the integration of Talk4Writing with Cooperative Learning. For more on the events, see Better Reading through Cooperative Learning and “Outstandingly Simple”follow-up; an introduction to Cooperative learning at Queen Mary’s Grammar School.





First of all, thank you for your attendance to internal and external delegates. (Make sure you get your personal handouts from Lisa!)

In yesterday’s session, we looked at various ways to stage the exercise Simultaneous Write-Round, where pupils working in small teams produce writing on a sheet or blank A4, and, when prompted, pass it to the next person to continue the story or solve other tasks. This makes use of time pressure to get pens to paper, and gives a sense of responsibility for the finished product.

In Early Years or for EAL, writing one word per pupil would suffice. “I … see … an …car.” Simply spelling the words and identifying how they fit grammatically (e.g. car is the wrong subject after the definite article an ) or to give a meaningful sentence is challenging enough. In KS2, some students will write a lot, some will write only a couple of words.

Peer input aside, writing can be guided by tasks presented on the worksheets themselves, by peers or teacher, on a interactive whiteboard or just orally by the teacher.

We used the sheet “First what happened was… and then…” etc. To support structuring a short story.

We also looked at using Simultaneous Write-Round for assessment and meta-cognition, using some very dense questions to simulate the challenges faced by lower ability pupils under pressure. A bit too much on a late, drowsy afternoon – my apologies!


Talk4Writing through Cooperative Learning

Obviously, what everyone was most interested in, and had a good laugh about, were the collaborative stories you wrote.

So, focusing on this, I want to respond to a question posed by one teacher: “How does this slot in with Talk4Writing.”

What follows should be self-explanatory, but for readers looking for more information on  this system, please visit their homepage for more details.

To exemplify, I am going to walk through a description of the first stage,  Imitation. (All stages in the system found here).

As we all know, Cooperative Learning is a delivery tool for any materials and objective, so to provide content I have picked Adventure at Cambary Park found in the PDF Story Reading into Writing from the T4W resource page. You can read the story about two girls finding a stolen treasure and being chased by a dangerous criminal below.

Original text is italicised, my comments are regular text.

Once the teacher has established a creative context and an engaging start, a typical Talk-for-Writing unit would begin with some engaging activities warming up the tune of the text, as well as the topic focused on, to help children internalise the pattern of the language required.

Here Catch1Partner or Word-Round with relevant oral questions from the teacher are obvious and simple ways to integrate Talk4Writing with the simultaneous interaction and high individual accountability secured by Cooperative Learning.

As they are presenting their solutions to peers, use unobtrusive monitoring to assess children’s levels, areas of interest, uncover potential pitfalls, etc. and drive their thinking to reflect your observations by simply dropping relevant, guiding questions into one of these activities. “What would you do if you found £20 on the street?” – “Can we always keep things that we find?” – “Imagine being chased by a criminal! What would you do?” Just ask whatever you think appropriate to that specific class. No preparation necessary.

This is often followed by talking an exemplar text, supported visually by a text map and physical movements to help the children recall the story or non-fiction piece. In this way the children hear the text, say it for themselves and enjoy it before seeing it written down.

This seems to be individual listening and physical activities. So, just do this as you normally would. Only use Cooperative Learning when it supports your objectives!

Once they have internalised the language of the text, they are in a position to read the text …

Obviously, Rotating Role Reading springs to mind. Especially the summarising and connection between paragraphs would help pupils uncover the “pattern” of the text, which I think is a keys to T4W’s success.

…and start to think about the key ingredients that help to make it work.

Here, add in a role with relevant questions or tasks, as we did with the science text last Monday, to “think about key ingredients.” I am sure your Talk4Writing resources have lots of useful ideas on this. Simply deploy what you would use anyway. Always remember, don’t do extra work!

This stage could include a range of reading as-a-reader and as-a-writer activities. Understanding the structure of the text is easy if you use the boxing-up technique (see below) and then help the children to analyse the features that have helped to make the text work.

Here the boxed texts are passed around in the Simultaneous Write-Round, as you saw it done yesterday. But rather than carrying the story in any direction from the previous pupil’s input, every pupil now has a clear model to work from thanks to Talk4Writing materials.

Example of boxed text here (click to enlarge):

Talk4Wrtng task

In this way the class starts to co-construct a toolkit for this type of text so that they can talk about the ingredients themselves – a key stage in internalising the toolkit in their heads.

So, when all boxes are filled, team-members might take turns reading aloud  the collaborative story on the paper they wound up with, and perhaps voting for the best one in relation to the T4W model – e.g. “Which of our stories is closest to the original pattern?” (Phrased age-appropriately, of course!).

Use the Word-Round to make sure they explain their choice. (“Lower ability team” in the back of the class, we discussed this! :)

I hope this helped answer your question. Simple, instant, integration of Cooperative Learning with strategies, lesson plan and materials from Talk4Writing.

I am hoping to find time to do a piece on collaborative writing for EAL and lower-ability pupils. Get notifications of related posts on twitter.

The full Skills & Mastery course presents activities to formally share, compare and get feedback on products such as this one, taken from the second stage of Talk4Writing,The innovation stage:





1 Comment

Filed under Cooperative Learning, CPD, Didactic methodologies, get started with CL, other teaching methods, Tips & tricks

“Outstandingly Simple”follow-up; an introduction to Cooperative learning

Yesterday, 50+ internal and external delegates attended “Outstandingly Simple,” a 60-minute introduction to Cooperative Learning at Queen Mary’s Grammar School. This post contains some of the materials, extra resources and reflections on the event.

First of all, thank you to all attendees. With high individual accountability, Cooperative Learning is very demanding after a full day of teaching, and I thank everyone for mustering their last resources – and I especially wish to thank the staff at Queen Mary’s who dedicated time and resources to making this CPD available to other Walsall schools.

Note that bookings are now open for next events, courtesy of  Charles Coddy Walker Academy: Better Reading through Cooperative Learning on 18 Apr 2016 15:30 and Better Writing through Cooperative Learning on 25 Apr 2016 15:30.




Both of these, and “Outstandingly Simple,” are tailored modules taken from the Skills & Mastery course; in yesterday’s case, the highly versatile Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern (CLIP) Catch1Partner. The activity simply pairs up all students across the class, and guides their learning through questions or tasks provided either as physical materials, such as flashcards, or teacher questions. Input is discussed further down. (For a step-by-step activity description, please see this discussion on how to balance student and teacher-centering with hard and soft objectives using this activity – scroll down to section title Scenario One; boards to brains or vice versa).

Primary learning objectives at Queen Mary’s were to demonstrate how this single activity works across all subjects to facilitate  or secure:


We were a very mixed body of secondary teachers from more than 8 schools, covering quite literally every subject from Science to PE. Two primary teachers were also present – and made up for quantity with quality, I might add. But more on that later.

With such a mixed group, multiple learning objectives, and only 60 minutes, I dispensed with any semblance of theoretical background, but rather let the activity explain itself – aided by dropping in leading questions to make delegates reflect on the learning process, such as “What do you think of this way of learning.”

Indeed, facilitating meta-cognition and feedback were among the secondary objectives, both strategies which may yield up to 8 months of additional progress per year according to the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit. (EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss discusses why this specific approach to Cooperative Learning is the most effective way to close the achievement gap for disadvantaged pupils. Also see Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning).

Some practical examples of areas we dealt with using flashcards:

  • Higher level thinking and argumentation (e.g. “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”) taken from Bad Arguments in RE; Arming our children’s minds,
  • Higher level thinking and SMSC/Citizenship/PSHE: e.g. (“You borrow your friend’s bike without asking…what do you do when it gets stolen?”), and training personal boundaries in the safer social environment of school as a vital part of safeguarding (e.g. “Would you mind scratching my back?”),
  • preparing for course/lesson subject, e.g. “What does Student-Centred learning mean to you?”
  • and “Hard” subject knowledge (e.g. “Most ionising type of radiation?” – with answer on the back).


In this context, “Skills” relate to procedures, such as deploying grammatical rules, procedures in maths or science, correct use of foreign language dictionaries. “Mastery” relates to knowledge, the ability to not only retain it, but to connect and employ it effectively to understand questions, task and issues, and to solve problems. Or, simply put, stuff they need to know, which is not up for opinionated discussion.

Maths cards QMGS
We demonstrated this with flashcards with questions and answers on each side, such as “solve this problem” (as above) or “What is the potential difference of the mains current in the UK?”

Some of you asked about these flashcards with hard learning Q&A. Please find them at, others free of charge at  Collins homepage.

As I mentioned in the session, the bulk of materials should be student-generated, and any flashcard brought in, or produced, needs to be carefully vetted by peers and literally signed off on, with name and date. Out in the real world, there will not be a teacher to serve up everything you need ready-made, and you cannot always rely on your collegues or peers to get it right. Obviously,  this clearing process in itself contributes to learning, as students must critically appraise precision of language, content and voracity of any materisals brought into the learning environment. Note that CLIPs exist to facilitate this as well.

An added benefit is that students start to assume responsibility not only for their own learning, but for their peers’ – current and future: If you laminate and retain these vetted materials in organised libraries, you will find younger siblings three years down the line saying “My big brother made this, look! That’s his signature from 2016!”

Another way to provide content is to have students copy key definitions from course materials onto cards, or simply  base on independent work: in Catch1Partner students mill and compare answers and discuss differences, or present written assignments (Remember to time the activity appropriately). As it were, we did this exercise with delegates creating materials based on actual needs, and then getting peer feedback on language, etc. Here the heterogeneous group created a real challenge for some, through monitoring, I picked up that a GCSE Math question may not be quite as clear to a KS3 English teacher as the KS4 Maths teacher might think.

(Note: Science teachers looking for subject relevant reading skills may be interested in the CooperateBeLitterate project, on the special skills sets needed to get the most out of science texts – please contact me for details by leaving a comment).

Social Skills

Obviously, every single interaction staged by Cooperative Learning is an opportunity to work with social skills. The key benefit is obviously that social skills and behavior is integrated seamlessly with subject content, and these two support each other. For more on this, please see, Norwich Primary Academy, Functional language maketh functional man, On the subject of social skills, and From Cooperative Learning of skills to Collaboration as a Skill to mention a few.

We looked at a simple exercise to make students generate phrases on flashcards that would improve their interaction in class, such as thanking: “Thanks for pairing up with me!” or praising: “Well done, I had never guessed.” Looking at these cards provide written evidence of what students perceive as behavior problems and solutions. Again, Catch1Partner is here used to get feedback and reflect on word choice, and to discuss the problem the phrase addresses. Some of you noticed the high level of implicit learning differentiation, both in relation to time spent and tangents explored by each pair.

Here, I want to mention that classroom control is a key factor. The staging of the activity, and the interaction, must not take time from objectives. As one delegate mentioned, getting 600 pupils quiet in 6 seconds can be done (Bluecoat Academy). And as one of our primaries commented later, this works even with very socially challenged pupils with high-level of EAL per class. In fact, Primary delegates had brilliant input on this, but more on that in the next post, which will look at assessment and real-time feedback. A video of the course introduction will be made available later. Get notifications of related posts on twitter.

Final note for now: Handouts are dense, but try, with the help of coffee. is the business end of










Filed under Cooperative Learning, CPD, events, get started with CL, Tips & tricks

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.

The Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit provides guidance for schools on how to best use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Collaborative strategies top the list of cost-effective approaches, giving evidence of 5 additional months’ progress over a year for a very low investment.*

As social challenges and ethnic heterogeneity often go hand in hand, this article is of urgent significance to teachers considering attending Charlie Hebdo & Islam; effectively handling controversy and FBV in Walsall this month, as this twilight will effectively demonstrate how Cooperative Learning may help improve achievement for non-white Pupil Premium eligible children, as well as help schools meet statutory requirements.

Introduced in 2010, the aim of the Pupil Premium is to provide additional funding to schools for disadvantaged pupils to ensure they benefit from the same educational opportunities as pupils from wealthier families. Worryingly, although overall per pupil spending increased by 85% between 1997 and 2011, improvements in pupil outcomes were marginal on most measures. Especially if the Pupil Premium is to succeed in achieving its ambitious goals, the choices that schools make in allocating that money are of vital importance.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit has been recommended by the Department for Education as a key resource for schools to use when choosing how to spend their Pupil Premium money.

Toolkit CL classification

All quotes and information in this article are sourced from the Toolkit’s Collaborative Learning page or general About page.


The price tag

There is a “very wide range of approaches to collaborative and cooperative learning” and the Toolkit notes it does not go into detail of all the specific approaches; suffice to say, not all are equally effective – and making them so comes with very different price tags and ensuing teacher workloads.

The Toolkit estimates costs for getting collaborative approaches into a class of 25 pupils at about £500 or £20 per pupil per year. Where the approach does not require an additional resource, these estimates are based on the cost of training or professional development which may be required.

I am surprised at these figures, as Stalham Academy, with about 200 pupils on roll, invested £900 in three two-hour CPD twilights over six months. That’s a one-off charge of about £4.5 per pupil to move from special measures to consistently good teaching, according to the new headteacher’s critical observation.

Why Cooperative Learning works

The Toolkit warns that while the impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive, effective collaborative learning requires much more than just sitting pupils together and asking them to work together, specifically advising that “structured approaches with well-designed tasks lead to the greatest learning gains.” “Structured” being the operative word in this context.

The structural approach to Cooperative Learning solves a number of crucial group work issues because it defines minute-by-minute and step-by-step how students interact with materials and each other. These steps are precisely “well-designed” in advance to secure that each member of the group is held fully accountable, yet everyone depends equally on peers to complete the task at hand – with no further planning, guiding or monitoring from the teacher. It should be noted here that the equal participation prevents the usual group work issue of HAP domination and LAP freeloading.

On top of this, Cooperative Learning solves the two most fundamental group work problems: securing class control and individual assessment. Because all teams engage in the same steps simultaneously across the class, the structuring means that the teacher knows who is doing what in each group at any given time, and, as each and every pupil is required to present their learning to peers, unobtrusive monitoring provides formative assessment and realistic insight into individuals’ learning process in real time. The impact on learning is obvious.

Further to the issue of class control, Cooperative Learning activities may be scaled to last as little as 45 seconds and may be interspersed with board teaching, individual work, and any other activities – all at the teacher’s discretion. This means it is it easy for teachers to weave back and forth between teacher-centred and student-centred learning on the fly.

Because the same series of steps may be used in any subject with any materials, a single CPD twilight session potentially deploys Cooperative Learning across the entire curriculum the following morning. More on the other site.


Moving on, the Toolkit directly states that “Approaches which promote talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains.” Without revisiting the discussion on social constructivism, it goes without saying that the positive interdependence requires continuous engagement where learning and understanding is reviewed and negotiated:

Did you hear what the teacher just said? What do you think these instructions mean? How do you know this is a persuasive text? How did you arrive at this result in exercise five? What did you just learn? What did your partner just learn? What do you expect to learn? How does your team respond the ongoing conflicts in the dining hall? How do you think this task is best solved? How do you know this? Why do you expect this from the science experiment? How can you be sure about this? Which character in this book do you like best and why? What do you remember most from this lesson, etc.

Because some teachers associate all collaborative approaches with mere talking exercises, I always point out to delegates how to secure written evidence of learning at every turn. Cooperative Learning activities not directly designed for worksheets and writing may always integrate written elements, whether during preparation of their own presentations or listening to peers. However, because pupils are supported by peers, and are under subtle peer pressure, even poor writers will be able to get something legible down; as Ms Brady of Norwich Primary Academy notes:

“…what delighted me was the improvement in secretarial skills … I really don’t think I could have achieved such a dramatic improvement using ‘usual’ methods. [One pupil], whose partner told him he couldn’t read the sentence on Wednesday, earned himself a house point for improvement and I’m sure he left the room several centimetres taller!”

Please see comprehensive interviews with management and staff.

Cooperative Learning and differentiation

The Toolkit makes clear that collaborative approaches appear to work across the curriculum and for all ages “if activities are suitably structured for learners’ capabilities.” (Again that word, “structured.”) Every teacher knows the work required to organise effective differentiation by providing a variety of materials, organising students into achievement groups and so forth. Here, I need only to refer the reader to Mr Russell’s videoed comment on learning differentiation and Cooperative Learning at Stalham Academy. For context and other interviews, please see New head, fresh eyes; a critical outsider’s look at Cooperative Learning.

Glenn Russell video


Evidence used in the Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit

Evidence estimates are based on: the availability of evidence (i.e. the number of systematic reviews or meta-analyses and the quantity of primary studies which they synthesise); the methodological quality of the primary evidence; and the reliability or consistency of this impact across the studies reviewed.

Specifically: “Evidence about the benefits of collaborative learning has been found consistently for over 40 years and a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of research studies have been completed. In addition to direct evidence from research into collaborative learning approaches, there is also indirect evidence where collaboration has been shown to increase the effectiveness of other approaches such as mastery learning or digital technology. It appears to work well for all ages if activities are suitably structured for learners’ capabilities and positive evidence has been found across the curriculum. Not all of the specific approaches to collaborative learning that are adopted by schools have been evaluated so it is important to evaluate any new initiative in this area.”

It is my hope this article is a step towards remedying this last point.

For information about the Toolkit’s methodology please view the Toolkit’s Technical Appendices. The full reference list of research data is found here.

A follow-up article here on will discuss how Cooperative Learning actually integrates core elements of some of the other, much more costly, best-practice approaches in the Toolkit, including Peer Tutoring.

Get notifications of related posts on twitter.


*) Average impact is estimated in terms of the additional months’ progress you might expect pupils to make as a result of an approach being used in school, taking average pupil progress over a year as a benchmark.




Filed under Cooperative Learning, CPD, get started with CL, Tips & tricks, videos