Category Archives: other teaching methods

Hand in Glove; SOLO Taxonomy & Cooperative Learning

Action Research: Working with Berrymede Junior School has presented an opportunity to better harness the vast amounts of pupil knowledge made visible by Cooperative Learning.

Ever open to hand-carry any and all curriculum content and pedagogical approaches, Cooperative Learning multiplies the value of programmes as diverse as Read-Write-Inc, Talk4Writing, and Maths No Problem. However, one specific approach stands out. 

Unlike the above-mentioned schemes – specific to phonics, writing and maths – this unique approach mirrors the all-encompassing scope of Cooperative Learning. And like Cooperative Learning, it needs an avatar to manifest in the classroom.

This extraordinary approach is, of course, SOLO Taxonomy, which I have wanted to sink my teeth into since attending Laura Kearney’s workshop almost a year ago. (See “Me teaching! You Learning!” – When Teaching Meets Learning@NB2B conference…).


Cooperative Learning goes SOLO

So, what aligns SOLO so perfectly with Cooperative Learning? Ironically, the fact that they are polar opposites:

Cooperative Learning fashions an outward, physical aspect of learning – manifest as tightly organised peer-to-peer discussion, negotiation, presentation, Q&A, sharing, guiding, assisting, note-taking, and so forth.

SOLO Taxonomy fashions an inward, mental aspect of learning – manifest by its organising, qualifying and classifying the knowledge production resulting from this outward aspect.

Then, there is a less fortunate resemblance: Despite their superficial simplicity, both can be applied to anything, at any time, to achieve virtually any objective within their respective fields. As we know, doing everything all at once is seldom successful. Here’s a few items on the SOLO list: “plan teaching,” “assess and guide learning in relation to both functional and declarative knowledge” and “give proximate, hierarchical and explicit feedback, feed-forward and feed-up on learning” (Pam Hook First Steps with SOLO Taxonomy – Applying the model in your classroom, p. 11).

Hence, getting SOLO firmly embedded in your school is a time-consuming uphill struggle to first get everyone’s head around the underlying theory and then anchor practice consistently across all classrooms – on top of everything else you have to do.



To save time and effort, and to minimise risk of wasting both, the alternative is ongoing, costly consulting and coaching from an external provider (building in-school champions, etc. etc). For school leaders, short of time, mental and emotional resources and money, getting hooked on SOLO seems an overwhelming endeavour.

(As for deploying Cooperative Learning without adequate training, we have covered that in How to NOT benefit from a visit to Stalham Academy; a warning to desperate heads.)

Fortunately, I have recently been contacted by Berrymede Junior, a London school looking for a simple, practical way to embed SOLO. This has presented us with the opportunity  for an action research project to synthesise the power of Cooperative Learning and SOLO Taxonomy into an inexpensive, practical and straightforward deployment solution.


SOLO in a nutshell

So, what is SOLO? All references in this article are culled from Pam Hook’s First Steps with SOLO Taxonomy – Applying the model in your classroom.

SOLO stands for the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome and at its most basic plane organises learners’ performance into four distinct levels of increasing structural complexity. This taxonomy not only makes it possible to identify the pupils’ levels at any given time, but it also makes it possible to classify teacher input. 

Levels 1 and 2 are referred to as Unistructural and Multistructural. These relate to the surface level of quantity: simple recall of factual knowledge or parroting teacher talk.



The difference between levels I and II is the amount of knowledge, from single ideas to multiple ideas, as opposed to the quality of knowledge (see below).

Level 3 is referred to as Relational. From simply listing and describing individual items, pupils working on this level have now moved on to be able to sequence, classify, explain, compare, contrast, analyse, relate, and apply information and procedures.

Finally, Level 4, Extended abstract, connects these relationship to broader knowledge, allowing learners to rethink and find new ways to use it as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection or creation of new understanding.


SOLO taxonomy overview


(Here’s a task for you to check your understanding: After reading this paragraph, which level best describes your understanding of SOLO and its connection to Cooperative Learning?). I am guessing most would now be Level 2, which is where this paragraph is pitched. However, if you are using Cooperative Learning in your current lessons, you may already be moving up into Level 3, making connections.

For more on SOLO, I suggest visiting Pam Hook’s website

Blinded by visible learning?

In order to assess pupil’s SOLO levels and maximise feedback to get those elusive 8 months of additional progress mentioned in the EEF Toolkit, you need to, literally, make learning explicit. Nothing generates more explicit learning than Cooperative Learning. Simply walking around in a class in the midst of any CLIP provides twenty times the information on learning any teacher can reasonably process. And we have not even touched the embedded production of written evidence.

Nothing organises and structures that information overload better than SOLO. When  teachers need to identify levels at a glance/eavesdrop, its far simpler than Bloom’s – and its alternatives, if you scan Terry Heick’s comparison. By using SOLO to classify and organise, you tap more fully into the assessment potential of Cooperative Learning.

In a nutshell, Cooperative Learning provides the high volumes of realistic data that SOLO needs, and SOLO increases precision, speed and scope of what you can do with the high volumes of realistic data provided by Cooperative Learning.


SOLO alone and together.PNG


Shared language?

So, what do we mean by “realistic data”? David Dideau, who famously back-pedalled on SOLO some years ago (Why I changed my mind about the SOLO taxonomy), notes that “teaching children a new cross curricular language of learning assumes that the terms we use mean the same things at different times and in different places.”

That is precisely why we should give teachers and learners a chance to find out what they actually mean. For fans of Bakhtin, the ultimate aim of learning is to help best develop a person’s thought process by allowing their “inner-voice” to flourish.  The inner-voice can only be developed effectively when it has access to a range of different “outer-voices” which can be synthesised, repeated and interpreted using the individual’s own language. (See Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1986).

David Oldham capture

The term “Shared language” comes up again and again in different contexts in this recent interview with headteacher David Oldham. (watch now)

Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns are ideal tools for teachers to micro-manage the expansion of the inner-coming-out. Ensuring a bridging of potential gaps in perception between teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil mitigates the very real risk described by Dideau.

Above every deep is a surface you need to break

Being able to generate revolutionary new thinking and seeing links and connections between different concepts and ideas are utterly dependent on the depth and breadth of what pupils know. In the words of Dideau, “teaching pupils how to analyse in isolation is pretty pointless. They need to have something to analyse.”

For more on how Cooperative Learning promotes simple recall of factual knowledge, see such posts as Cooperative Learning; Closed Questions,  Closed Achievement Gaps and Deconstructing the Progressive-Traditional Dichotomy; a note to Mr Peal. So, I am pleased to note that, like me, Pam Hook and other principal proponents of SOLO identify such surface understanding as absolutely necessary to move on to the deep learning of levels 3 and 4.

Here, we need to again negate the misapprehension that Cooperative Learning is all about pupils venting random opinions completely out of context. I still remember a hilarious example of such by HMI Alan Brine taken from an RE lesson where pupils had been asked where they wanted to go on pilgrimage, where the majority had honestly answered “vacation.” It simply says to the teacher moved ahead before the surface understanding of SOLO Level I was in place: Define “pilgrimage.”

Cooperative Learning is a surgical precision tool to let the teacher generate high volumes of observable learning outcomes. SOLO, the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes, is a simple, tried-and-tested way to get more out of those outcomes.

Below are some relevant questions you might ask yourself about this article. 

Some illustrative SOLO questions

Now imagine a trusted colleague with whom you could bounce your thoughts back and forth, adding, checking, sharing, suggesting?

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*) Pam Hook, First Steps with SOLO Taxonomy – Applying the model in your classroom, 
Essential Resources Educational Publishers Limited, 2016.




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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:





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Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning

This brief article 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.

(This article is a natural follow-up to EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss, and of special interest to attendees of Charlie Hebdo in Luton and last week’s MTA event at Berrymede Junior School in London).

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.

Information given to the learner

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 (which is a separate strategy from the Toolkit) 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. The teacher has only to adjust the volume or focus by dropping in questions.

Assume in the Charlie Hebdo lesson plan (see below), we have reached the stage where our students present their core arguments to partners, before a Live Opponent.  Repeat that step a couple of times, but give the ancillary task: “Before switching to a new partner, tell each other how to improve your next presentation.” Then drive sub-objectives by giving detail: “Remember how we discussed pausing at commas and full stops when reading out? Same thing here. You do not want to rush through.” or “Is there a way to make the language more concise.” etc.

Remember that having the recipient writing down the feedback, and having the advisor sign it, again ensures accountability for both parties.

Secondly, because of the tightly controlled organizing of peers and teams means the teacher is able to control the who gives feedback to whom – negating the usual perils of less organised group work. This is especially important if you want to leverage Higher with Lower Ability Pupils. I hope to write more on that in a later post. In the interim, you will find some details on equal participation here.

Information given to the teacher 

As for feedback to the teacher, there is obviously the information automatically culled on the learning process, implicit in all proper Cooperative Learning. Here, first port of call is again unobtrusive monitoring. Added to this is the activities staged with feedback as the specific product.

As an example, I refer to the newsletter eCL#3: Charlie’s Angels or Sympathy for the Devils… RE Lesson Plan on the Paris attacks. Attendees of last weeks MTA event at Berrymede in London will recognise the many levels information can be culled in written form – notetaking before presenting, note-taking during interviewing, during listening to other pupil’s presentation, as well as any other way one normally secures written evidence; with Cooperative Learning, it is never an either/or. The end of the plan also gives examples of homework.


Feedback studies tend to show very high effects on learning across all age groups. Generally, research in schools has focused particularly on its impact on English, mathematics and, to a lesser extent, science and recent meta-analysis of the impact of formative assessment on writing indicates gains of 8 months’ progress are achievable. Given  feedback is integrated implicitly and may be explicitly organised with superior effect this makes structural  Cooperative Learning exceptionally  effective.

According to Sutton Trust research, some studies reporting lower impact indicate that it is challenging to improve the quality of feedback in the classroom. But with Cooperative Learning, because the individual accountability makes feedback implicit in the    Cooperative Learning activities themselves with no further preparation from the teacher.

In a recent study, some teachers initially believed that the programme was unnecessary as they already used feedback effectively. For such teachers,  Cooperative Learning would simply be a tool to further increase focus and effect of their feedback.

Working explicitly with feedback however does require some delineation – as I often warn teachers is that Cooperative Learning  will give what you put into it. For example, the literature on feedback draws an essential distinction between feedback targeted at the self (‘Great sentence; you are a superstar!’) and feedback which promotes self-regulation and independent learning (‘You have learned some adverbs today. Check if you could add some adverbs to improve your sentences.’).

It was not clear in observed lessons that this distinction was consistently understood by teachers, and this is important because Cooperative Learning  will engage students in both cases, but the outcome is very different. Precisely because Cooperative Learning multiplies the effect of the input, it is recommended that staff be provided with a large number of examples illustrating the variety of types of feedback.

Price tag

This research is based on whole school intervention, involving 10 schools and around 4,000 pupils at a cost of around £88,000. The cost per pupil is approximately £22 according to the Sutton Trust research. Referring back to the previous articles, where we mentioned the price of the basic Skills & Mastery as less than £5 for a collaborative learning programme normally priced at £40, consider saving an additional sum by restricting  feedback CPD to best practice questioning techniques, rather than a full scale package.

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Evidence culled from the action research project Anglican Schools Partnership and Effective Feedback and Teaching and Learning Toolkit.


Filed under Cooperative Learning, Didactic methodologies, get started with CL, integration, Lesson plans, other teaching methods, Research

Engaging staff effectively with their CPD; A CL gloss

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

Ms Brosnan’s original text is italicised.

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

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

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

CL does not require....

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


Ms Brosnan continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Leadership culture & Teacher enquiry

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

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

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

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

As Ms Brosnan points out:

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

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

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

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

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

Read Ms Brosnans full article.

More videos with Ms Gillespie et al.

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Filed under CL definitions and terminology, Cooperative Learning, CPD, Didactic methodologies, get started with CL, other teaching methods

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

Collaboration is officially the future paradigm of education

Just so you know… [about the Bologna Process]


Why this incessant focus on collaboration and cooperation? Why the article on Mantle of the Expert? Going back to our previous discussion on the 18th Century basis for our modern” education system and it’s systemic faults, it’s worth casting a quick glance upon its raison d’etre.

Timothy Mitchell, describing the education system as a vital tool of colonization, maps out the original reasoning behind its implementation in the United Kingdom, which was to replace religion as a means of social management and control by the growing centralized state:

“The power of working upon the individual offered by modern schooling, was to be the hallmark and method of politics itself, a politics “modelled on the process of schooling,” which would utilize the school’s “precise methods of inspection, coordination and control” to “change the tastes and habits of an entire people (…) and by a new means of education make him or her into a modern political subject—frugal, innocent, and, above all, busy. *)

Busy being the key word; what is implied is not the need of the British people to become enlightened or empowered, but rather the need of the rising capitalist economy for workers skilled only at punctually serving the machines in the factory. As Sir Ken Robinson has pointed out, the  school system itself is modeled on a manager’s dream of the factory – right down to the conveyor belt of Years, batch production replete with date of manufacture (class of…”) and quality standard stamps (A+ to F-).

Ken Robinson RSA industry

The reason I mention Ken Robinson here is that he is perceived by many as a radical innovator pushing the boundaries of education against incredible odds, where he is in fact completely (and consciously) aligned with the very same forces that once created the 18th Century system he and his colleagues are now fighting to change.

There is not much awareness that the Powers-That-Be have already issued a new wishlist (or rather, list of demandsto governments. They don’t want robots anymore: The demands of the knowledge economy mean a new type of worker bee is needed; the thinking worker, communicative, independent, flexible, able to engage in lifelong learning, project based employment and collaboration in a variety of uncertain contexts using novel technology.

So whatever we as educators, parents or students may think of it, Student-Centred Learning (SCL) is being pushed hard by governments across the world in a desperate attempt to stay on top of the future economic food chain. Four years ago the Bologna Process 2020 was signed by no less than 46 Ministers of Education. Articles 2 and 14 position SCL as the key to future success:

Student-centred learning and mobility will help students develop the competences they need in a changing labour market and will empower them to become active and responsible citizens.


We reassert the importance of the teaching mission of higher education institutions and the necessity for ongoing curricular reform geared toward the development of learning outcomes. Student-centred learning requires empowering individual learners, new approaches to teaching and learning, effective support and guidance structures and a curriculum focused more clearly on the learner in all three cycles. Curricular reform will thus be an ongoing process leading to high quality, flexible and more individually tailored education paths. Academics, in close cooperation with student and employer representatives, will continue to develop learning outcomes and international reference points for a growing number of subject areas…

There is no  if we adopt SCL; only  how successful or unsuccessful is our implementation going to be? And that’s reason enough to find new forms of teaching, such as Mantle of the Expert, which provide precisely these features – and more…

Follow this blog for precisely that more – I am currently working on an article on how this market drive towards Student-Centered Learning may be turned on its head if we, as educators, take the reigns now. There is a lot of hope. For a hint, I refer readers to the summary of my recent Copenhagen University paper.

“…active and responsible citizens”, indeed.



*) Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 68, as quoted by G. Starret, “Putting Islam to Work – Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt, (University of California Press, 1998).


Filed under Cooperative Learning, Education policy, other teaching methods

Pandora’s Box: cooperative learning in collaborative learning

Continuing our thread on good teaching in a perhaps less than good setting as well as our discussion on collaborative vs. cooperative learning; an engaged and engaging colleague from a local school has recently pointed me towards one of the more potent alternative forms of collaborative learning that may be snuck into the ordinary classroom without rocking the boat; the student-centered dramatic-inquiry-based approach to teaching Mantle of the Expert created by Professor Dorothy Heathcote’s back in the eighties.

A brief outline of Mantle of the Expert

It casts teacher and students in fictional roles in which students are “endowed” as experts in a specific field, inverting the typical teacher-to-student model of teaching by allowing the students to dictate their learning and educational process through creative drama. The students might be scientists in a laboratory or archaeologists excavating a tomb. Through activities and tasks, the children gradually take on some of the same kinds of responsibilities, problems and challenges that real archaeologists and scientists might do in the real world.

The following is a exemplary MoE lesson plan called Mountain Rescue Planning by Tim Taylor, taken from It presents a situation where the students run a mountain rescue operation and must save the life of a lone climber who has injured his leg traversing a steep peak high above the snow line. The MoE framework breaks into four basic stages:

  1. Background – establishing a context through questions such as “How do extreme environments affect humans and mammals?”
  2. Field of Expertise – including high-level communication skills such as talking to people who may be injured & distressed and ability to read & interpret maps & understand geographical features & their implications.
  3. Client(s): climbers, and hikers, skiers,who need rescuing, media wanting information, etc.
  4. Commision(s):  To plan, organise & execute a rescue, give advice & help preventing avalanches, advice on suitable climbing materials & equipment.

(The full lesson plan may be downloaded here: Mountain Rescue Planning)

Mantle & Cooperative Learning

In a previous post we defined Cooperative Learning as an “educational approach that emphasizes teacher involvement in setting goals and determining activities” vs. Collaborative Learning as “the passing of more control of learning to the students.” Clearly Mantle falls under the Collaborative Learning category, in the sense that it is based on roles rather than structured patterns to guide student interaction, and thus goals and activities are less controlled.

However, the structured approach to Cooperative Learning fits into the collaborative meta-frame of MoE just as well as it does in the “normal classroom,” and it adds no less value to the lesson; picking one of many examples, the discovery exercises lend themselves to such classics as Think-Pair-Share (group level) or Grab1Partner (class level – thoroughly discussed in-depth in July’s newsletter eCL#1.)

For a higher level thinking question such as “What can we learn from investigating these people & their work, which will help us to live successful lives?” Think-Pair-Share is an ideal way of reflecting on and discovering through discussion different takes on the objectives of learning, personal values and human qualities. The TPS shell is simple: In teams of four (two pairs), students are given a specified amount of time to first individually reflect and draw notes on the question, then discuss these reflections with their partner, together discovering new angles and aspects to them, and finally, as a pair, present their common findings to the other pair in a full-group discussion. Here the whole team works out one or more answers to the posed question that they wish to present to the class – possibly along including arguments for their choice and insights arrived at along the way. 

For simpler questions, such as How do extreme environments affect humans and mammals?” – which may be whittled down to simple lists depending on Key Stage – a shell such as Ping-Pong-Pair might be more suitable. In Ping-Pong-Pair two students, using only one pen and one piece of paper take turns noting down an answer as quickly as possible, pushing the paper back and forth between them (adding a 30 second time frame can make this quite entertaining for some learners!); “freeze to death – drown in waterfall – fall through ice – avalanche…”. Note that competition between partners, pairs, or teams may be used as an incentive, and that Ping-Pong-Pair may be integrated into the Pair-stage of Think-Pair-Share, where the Share stage in the group might weed out oddities (Sharks aren’t environment, Karen! – They are, too!” – Wait you two, environment is defined as…)

Pandora’s box

The point of thinking two layers of CL is simple: the very open framework of MoE potentially opens the door to what I call  “chaotic group work” where weak or disengaged students are let off the hook or pushed aside by the stronger students, or the whole team spins off-task ending up with meager or no results. By using shells such as Think-Pair-Share, the teacher is certain that all students are individually accountable while equally and simultaneously participating; Thinking alone, all students are busy preparing a presentation expected by their partner within the next few minutes; when discussing it in Pairing, they need each other to agree on common solutions they wish to bring the the other pair, and finally, in the Sharing, they work together to re-vet, re-frame and re-phrase their own and their partner pair’s reflections to create a synergistic solution.

An interesting theme for my next Newsletter would be a full Mantle of the Expert lesson plan with full Cooperative Learning integration, much akin to the CELTA Functional Language Lesson Plan in the eCL#2 article “The Teacher is a Ghost.”

*) described by the author of Cooperative, Collaborative and Group Work,


Filed under CL definitions and terminology, Cooperative Learning, get started with CL, integration, other teaching methods