Category Archives: Research

Making best use of TAs with Cooperative Learning; Index of articles

Please find links below to the full series of articles explaining how Cooperative Learning will make the seven recommendations in the EEF Making best use of Teaching Assistants Guidance Report a lived reality in your school, simply and cost-efficiently. 

The key message of this series is that the shared language and simple and consistent framework that Cooperative Learning provides ensures a flexible, yet homogeneous, toolkit and ethos throughout your school, from the headteacher to the to teachers – and, most importantly teaching assistants, who are probably the most undervalued and untapped resource in English schools today.




Index of articles on


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Our next area of focus will be on how Cooperative Learning makes SOLO Taxonomy simple and accessible.

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…Best Use of Teaching Assistants with Cooperative Learning#6; V-VII On linking structured, quality TA interventions to regular teaching

This is the final instalment in our series of articles explaining how Cooperative Learning will make the seven recommendations in the EEF Making best use of TAs Guidance Report a lived reality in your school, simply and cost-efficiently. 

This article discusses Recommendations V-VII, found in Section 6 & 7 of the report:



The essentials of the relationship between Cooperative Learning and recommendations V-VII have been dealt in the previous articles, so this final instalment therefore mainly recaps and links these key points to connect structured, quality TA interventions to regular teaching – in the minds of teachers, TAs and learners.


Cooperative Learning and small-group interventions


According the the report, TAs working in structured settings with high-quality support and proper training is where the 3-4 additional months’ progress is found. Adversely, when TAs are deployed in more informal, unsupported instructional roles, they can impact negatively on pupils’ learning outcomes (p. 23).

Thus, the key to success in out-of-class interventions is the amount and type of training, coaching and support provided by the school. We have already discussed in Recommendation IV how TAs should (A) always take part in training sessions, and how (B) they are involved in the staging and running of Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns (CLIPs) in classrooms on a daily basis.

The combined effect is that TAs very soon take ownership of the CLIPs. Through training and direct experience, they understand when, how and why individual CLIPs should be used. Though coaching is indispensable, and should take place in any circumstances,  the shared language and simple consistency of Cooperative Learning allows for an incredibly cost-effective and safe transfer of good classroom practice into small-group interventions run exclusively by support staff.

“…learning the ability to implement during interventions and tailored to individual needs.” -Cat Moore, teaching assistant, on the best part of attending Cooperative Learning CPD at Fakenham Junior School, 2017.

Take note that the SEN Code of Practice makes it clear that teachers remain responsible and accountable for the progress and development of the pupils in their class, including “where pupils access support from teaching assistants”. Cooperative Learning should never be used to transfer teacher responsibility to support staff.

Instructions from teachers to coordinate interventions could be as simple as “Boss and Secretary these three questions and send them back in.” For an example of Boss & Secretary in class, revisit this video in Recommandation IV where Gypsie explains her knowledge of division to Sidney at Sheringham Primary Community School:


Sheringham Boss & Secretary.PNG



However, in an intervention, the TA would model the Boss-role extensively, tweaked to match special needs, integrate targets from each SEN pupil’s individual development plan, and/or micro-guide the two or three pupil Bosses present in a 4-6-pupil intervention.

As a result, the supported pupils regularly moving back and forth between interventions and classroom teaching will find total coherence in the execution and outcomes of activities: the only difference being the increased level of adult support and possibly differentiated content.

This is especially important as the report makes clear that it cannot be left to the pupil to make links between the coverage of the intervention and the wider curriculum coverage back in the classroom. Given that supported pupils are usually those who find accessing learning difficult in the first place, this presents a huge additional challenge.

Cooperative Learning lets you use evidence-based interventions to reflect similar evidence-based class teaching to secure consistent and high-quality teaching across the school, yet lets you involve SEN and other vulnerable pupils on an equal footing.

TA with small group

Ideal intervention is what you get when you stage things properly. (From the Report, p. 13).

The ideal intervention

The Report lists specific trusted programmes (p. 24), including Talk for Literacy which we have already dealt with in relation to Cooperative Learning, but also gives general guidelines for how ideal interventions should look.

Summarising the key points, also found on page 24:

Sessions have structured supporting resources and lesson plans, are brief (20–50mins) and regular over a sustained period with clear objectives and “possibly a delivery script.” This should now be familiar to those who have been following this series.

TAs receive extensive training from experienced trainers and/or teachers (5–30 hours per intervention). Basic training consists of 3-4 twilights with the rest of staff (i.e. 6-8 hours), and class specific training from teachers take place in class as discussed above. Baring occasional monitoring and coaching – which should be a given regardless of intervention type – there is no need for further investment of valuable time.

Assessments are used to identify appropriate pupils and track pupil progress. We have discussed the issue of visible learning through Cooperative Learning on multiple occasions. This is a good summary.


Connecting the dots

Crucially, the final piece of advice, Recommendation VII, is to build bridges between what happens in these two learning environments:




Nothing is more explicit than Cooperative Learning. By being exposed to identical CLIPs with more support,  pupils coming back from interventions to land in a duplicate activity in class may all of a sudden become a valued resource for their peers. For many disadvantaged or lower-attaining pupils, such academic appreciation by peers might be a first-time experience.

With this connection between academic results and self-esteem, we conclude our series on the seven recommendations form the EEF’s Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants Guidance Report. 

The key message of this series is that the shared language and simple and consistent framework that Cooperative Learning provides ensures a flexible, yet homogeneous, toolkit and ethos throughout your school, from the headteacher to the to teachers – and, most importantly teaching assistants – probably the most undervalued and untapped resource in English schools today.




Index of articles:


As I work with schools, more and more best-practice comes to light. You are welcome to contact me if you have questions or wish to learn more.

Our next area of focus will be on how Cooperative Learning makes SOLO Taxonomy simple and accessible.

* * *

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…Best Use of Teaching Assistants with Cooperative Learning #5; IV “Ensure TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom”

This series of articles explains how Cooperative Learning will make the seven recommendations in the EEF Making best use of TAs Guidance Report a lived reality in your school, simply and cost-efficiently. 

The seven recommendations are found in Section 5 of the report; This article discusses Recommendation IV:

EEF Recommendation IV header


In order to achieve this, the Guidance Report recommends schools “provide sufficient time for TA training and for teachers and TAs to meet out of class to enable the necessary lesson preparation and feedback.”

TAs & teacher training

In relation to training, Cooperative Learning CPD should always include all teaching staff, precisely because it reduces the need for shared PPA time, simplifying logistics of day-to-day school life and freeing the time allocated for more strategic objectives.

One of the main reasons I charge in batches of 20 delegates is to remove the temptation in schools to save money in the short term by sending only teachers to the training. It is simply a lot more cost-efficient on so many levels to include everyone, not least the value of support staff feeling that they are, indeed, part of the team. More on this pricing structure.

PPA time and/or visible modelling

Specifically, the Report notes that this allocated lesson preparation time should ensure TAs have the essential ‘need to knows’:

  • Concepts, facts, information being taught
  • Skills to be learned, applied, practiced or extended
  • Intended learning outcomes
  • Expected/required feedback.

Looking just at the Cooperative Learning, by attending the training, support staff fully understand each Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern (CLIP) which is then replicated with different content, day in and day out, so they know exactly what good practice looks like.

A reminder here: The CLIPs need to fuse with your content to become an activity (e.g. just imagine a Think-Pair-Share with no question – not a lot to work with, is there?). Therefore, actual day-to-day practice requires an alignment of objectives, materials, and CLIPs. And this bit is, on the whole, the teacher’s responsibility as the objectives are taken from the lesson plans and the materials are often dictated one way or another, whether by last year’ s leftovers, by school policy, or something else.

Therefore, one would expect that in order for the TA to be “fully prepared for their role in the classroom” shared PPA time would be a requirement and, ideally, she should be a part of setting up sessions, as noted in Recommendation III. However, we all know that this is not always possible or convenient.

But because the TA is present in the class when the subject-specific task is injected into the CLIP, whether the TA or a pupil is “used” to model the interaction – she will also understand the unique subtasks, language or vocabulary required by children to complete the task.

As a result, as a TA, you can rush into the room five minutes late from some off-the-cuff behaviour intervention, follow the teacher’ s lead within the well-known structure of the selected CLIP  to immediately assume a role almost on par with the teacher once the activity kicks off: “Remember, Robbie, in this exercise, you need to ask your teammates to actually count/spell/explain before answering your question” orDo you remember what Mrs Harrington demonstrated with Mike? Make sure to tell your coaching-partner to keep his ruler horizontal when doing the X-axis.”

For examples of such phrases and vocabulary, enjoy this Boss & Secretary presented Gypsie and Sidney of Sheringham Primary Community School:


Sheringham Boss & Secretary.PNG
Gypsie uses Boss Secretary to explain her knowledge of division to Sidney. She shows that she understands the process and uses the correct vocabulary. Next, they will swap over. If Gypsie had made a mistake, Sidney would have followed her instructions and showed her….

Peer-coaching: The TA as a mirror

For TAs looking for continuous professional development or planning a teaching career, there is an added bonus. Consider for a moment the ‘need to knows’ outlined in the report: “Concepts, facts being taught, Skills to be learned, Intended learning outcomes, Expected/required feedback”


Teachers will find they get a lot out of spending a bit of time with their TA looking at each of these points in turn, sharing reflections on the choice of CLIP to match intended learning outcomes,  helping each other to pick the best vocabulary and phrases to facilitate conceptual understanding, foreseeing problems in the application of acquired skills, etc.

Especially given the fact that Teaching Assistants of have unique knowledge about individual pupil’s “quirks” – and these do become apparent when working closely with peers – he or she is in a unique position to anticipate problems which could be triggered.

Furthermore, because these discussions with the teacher give an understanding of how and when to use the CLIPs effectively, the TA will be a lot more confident when using Cooperative Learning in any out of class interventions.

We will look at this in more depth when we discuss the next two recommendations:

Rec V and VI (Out of Class).PNG




The following figure is found on page 19 of the Report. In the previous post, we discussed how Cooperative Learning will help TAs to evade these pitfalls.

Rec III Figure 1 (Avoid...)



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…Best Use of Teaching Assistants with Cooperative Learning #4; III “Use TAs to help pupils develop independent learning skills…”

This series of articles explains how Cooperative Learning will make the seven recommendations in the EEF Making best use of TAs Guidance Report a lived reality in your school, simply and cost-efficiently. 

The seven recommendations are found in Section 5 of the report; This article discusses Recommendation III:

EEF Recommendation III header


The Guidance Report refers to EDTA research which has (unsurprisingly!) shown that improving the nature and quality of TAs’ talk to pupils can support the development of independent learning skills. TAs should, for example, “be trained to avoid prioritising task completion and instead concentrate on helping pupils develop ownership of tasks.” (p, 4).

The don’ts of TA interaction with pupils

The following figure is found on page 19 of the Report. In the following, we will demonstrate how Cooperative Learning will evade these pitfalls.

Rec III Figure 1 (Avoid...)


In a Cooperative Learning classroom, the pupils are the primary teaching resource and thus, as a baseline, TAs should only interfere with peer learning when strictly necessary, such as challenging off-task behaviour.

As a rule, the pupils are given freedom to work things out for themselves and request differentiated support from peers, which secures enough thinking and
response time while the limited access to pupils immediately solves the problems of TAs inadvertently prioritising task completion, high use of closed questions, ‘Stereoteaching,’ over-prompting and spoon-feeding before they arise.

(Note that it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide relevant language to facilitate these peer discussions, including relevant social skills and specific phrases, such as “Can you give me another example, please?”)

As for the use of closed questions, the tasks which form the content in any Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern are clearly modelled by the teacher, who picks the questions which will best achieve his objectives. (For more on closed questions, please see Cooperative Learning; Closed Questions, Closed Achievement Gaps).

Because the TA is present (and indeed should take part in) this modelling, only relevant interventions will take place because he or she will know exactly which type of questions (open or closed) to ask, the intended scope of the discussion, as well as the interaction itself. Please see the article on Recommandation II for more on this.

The dos of TA interaction with pupils

Vice versa, Cooperative Learning also facilitates the polar opposites, found on the same page in the Report.

Rec III Figure 1 (Encourage...)

As with the teacher, unless allocated a specific group or single pupil for very specific reasons., the main objective for the TA during activities is to monitor and to intervene only when necessary. This ties straight in with providing the right amount of support at right time, giving the least amount of help first to support pupils’ ownership of the task, and pupils retaining responsibility for their learning.

As for open questions versus closed questions, these are selected only to support current objectives, we have discussed this above.

Finally, as for making pupils comfortable taking risks with their learning, because Cooperative Learning takes place within pairs all within (teacher-appointed) small, tightly knit teams, it thoroughly operationalises Mary Myatt’s doctrine of “high challenge, low threat.”


High challenge

Focusing on the second part of Myatt’s famous book title, on the EEF resource page, you will find a practical framework designed to help TAs scaffold pupils’ learning and encourage independent learning. TAs should move down the

TAs should move down the layers in turn, the lower layers corresponding to the lowest challenge. However, again, this procedure should really take place between peers across the class.

TA scaffolding framework

Just strike out “TA” on the text by the left-hand arrow, and replace it with “Peer.”


The initial expectation is that pupils self-scaffold whilst the TA observes their performance, which is exactly what happens anyway in a Cooperative Learning classroom. TAs should then intervene appropriately when pupils demonstrate they are unable to proceed. It is obviously “important the tasks set by teachers, and supported by TAs, provide pupils with the right level of challenge.”

Please view the original document here. Furthermore, on page 19, you will find a framework that TAs (and peers) can use for more effective questioning. Blow it up to a full-size poster, or put it on your interactive whiteboard.

Finally, for anyone in doubt about the validity of the relation of Cooperative Learning to the EEF Guidance, this is a quote from page 18. (For those who have done training with me, you will know how the formative assessment is a given).


Rec III Quote


In the next post on Recommendation IV, we will discuss how you avoid spending your valuable lesson preparation time ensuring TAs have the essential ‘need to knows’, such as the concepts, facts, information being taught.


EEF Recommendation IV header.PNG


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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

Learning Wisely – Living Virtuously: From the mountain to the valley

High-level cohesion, pulling values from the vacuum, or simply “Why Tertiary should pick up on child-centred learning”.

Yesterday Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Edinburgh University, presented her talk Learning Wisely, Living Virtuously: the challenge of Modern Education at the Thomas Paine Study Center, University of East Anglia. A big thank you to the Keswick trust for making this event available at no cost.

Those familiar with Professor Siddiqui’s BBC4 programmes will recognise many of the themes. It thrilled me that she opened with the issue of teaching values in a society without authoritative meta-narratives. This lead to a critique of the atomisation of education, its focus on the quantifiable over qualitative, as well as the narcissistic self-feeding-frenzy of contemporary consumer culture, which never stops to ask the question “Why?”

Treading carefully, Professor Siddiqui even managed to subtly juxtapose this lack of critical questioning with modernity’s all-pervading question-everything anti-authoritarian ethos, which today makes any discussion of solutions from a religious perspective difficult, if not impossible.

But distrust of authority, however, goes far beyond religion; She described a session where the question “What are your values?” had drawn blank stares from a lecture hall of university students. After coping with this novel concept, it finally transpired that they got their values not from their parents or teachers, but from their peers.

All in all, the Professor echoed my own reflections on this blog, tying together cultivation of values, engagement in deep and meaningful relationships, and the support this would offer community building and cohesion.

Given the title of the talk and the Professor’s engagement, intelligence and scholarship, I was genuinely interested in her ideas about how to translate this into a classroom experience – getting the sage down into the valley, so to speak. Therefore, in the following Q&A, I asked how such demanding human skills (including “humility, respect for hard work, thankfulness”) were to be taught in this context of narcissism, void of narrative and common reference points beyond the latest viral fad.

Alas, the answer here stayed on high ground, circling around the importance of adult role models, balancing the individual vs. community and semantics of values and morals when positioned to children. All highly intelligent and insightful, but nebulous nonetheless. After a few tries, I let it go.

This is in no way a critique of Professor Siddiqui, rather a realisation that she is as much a victim of the atomisation of the education system as the students. It is just not embedded day-to-day practice for researchers and philosophers to sit down with teachers and heads to operationalise ideal education, in spite of  teachers actually having a lot of quite amazing solutions, but no theoretical framework with which to describe them and develop them.

Caught in the revolving doors?

In reality, the most enlightening part of the evening took place later: Before I had even  risen from my seat, I was whirled up in conversation with a 22-year-old MA student at the UEA and a local Primary teacher in her 50s. Between myself and these two women, one in the spring and one at in autumn of life, choice, consequence, internalisation of learning, caring control versus freedom to fail, experience, art, expressiveness, identity; it all ignited.

On the way out, outlining my own work in relation to these  topics, I had only to say the word Cooperative Learning, and the MA student burst out with “Oh, I’d love to have some of that. That’s exactly what we need at university!”

It just so happened that a gatekeeping member of UEA staff stood only eight feet away, and I jokingly suggested she present her ideas to someone who actually had the power to do something, which I suppose is frightfully Scandinavian of me. Unfortunately, said academic needed to escort Professor Siddiqui from the centre, so this opportunity to cross-fertilize between a live student, a decision-maker, two practitioners and a government level philosopher was lost in a revolving door.

With staff and guests gone, the three of us continued the chat in the empty hall of the Thomas Paine Centre, doing what in Danish is referred to as “redde verden”; i.e. “saving the world” – vernacular for solving universal problems over a cuppa.

The hip bone’s connected to …

I realised in all this the underlying importance of  the educators’ workshop Healing Fractures II: Aside from hopefully inspiring and enlightening all participants on the subject, I wish to find a model in which stakeholders in any area may meet in something that is at once a chit-chat cafe and a ground-breaking, result-oriented down-to-business meeting – both of the highest caliber.

I was very generously offered a proper panel speech by one of the participants, Dr Lee Jarvis, who could easily have filled the Thomas Paine Center by himself. It was very tempting for a host of reasons, but in the end, I feel the format of panel-question/answer is not the answer here, even by a Senior Lecturer in International Security or a Professor in Islamic and Interreligious Studies:

Healing Fractures II is first and foremost about looking at information and information processing in another way and harnessing the power of didactic strategies to let a wide variation of stakeholders construct and funnel knowledge through highly complex networks – and secondly to capture that processing as clear, effective, next-action steps. The atomised take on knowledge is not an option in the 21st century.

And it is about equality, it is about exploring with genuine interest (facilitated by the format of Cooperative Learning) other people’s reflections, negotiating meanings and reality-checking ideas. And, in that, perhaps discovering that while we may think ourselves mountains of knowledge, we may be someone else’s valley floor. Whether this is wisdom is hard to say, but I remember when I was taught the Islamic sciences at the hand of a traditional Moroccan teacher: “Knowledge always flows downwards.” 

Professor Siddiqui’s most important statement came as an afterthought, reflecting on our questions at the very end of the Q&A:

“…I don’t know how we can get out of this,

except to re-analyse the purpose of education.”

First thing to do on a Monday morning, 16 March 2015, in the beautiful rooms of the Norwich Wellbeing Centre.

Lucy's man

“OK – Wow, I really am lost.”

This small clay figure is the handy-work of said primary school teacher,

scanned from her business card.




Related posts:

P4C? No, P4U! – Mr Lawson on enframing.
What comes out of the Birmingham “Trojan Horse”? – Critical thinking to go.
Empowering communities through Student-Centred Learning – The Palestinians seem to get it…
Transcript of “The Student- Centred Classroom & The Self-Centred Student…” – Paper presented at the BRAIS  inaugural conference, Edinburgh University, 11 April 2014.
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Disclaimer: This material represents my own focus and understanding and may not accurately reflect the intentions of the speaker.


Filed under Cooperative Learning, Didactic methodologies, Discovery, events, Multiculturalism, P4C, Philosophy for Children, Research, social skills

No way back to Kansas: The wider context of Thursday’s course

Mr Werdelin has developed a propitious educational project whose significance is as far reaching as its necessity in today’s big education debates…

– Mujadad Zaman, MPhil Educational Research Methods , PhD student candidate at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge University.


For the benefit of attendees of Islam in RE: Religious Literacy & Controversy Through Enquiry this coming Thursday, I would like to put the session into a wider context, hinted at by presenter Mr Mujadad Zaman at June’s pilot the University of East Anglia.

Mr Zaman is currently a PhD student candidate at the Cambridge University Faculty of Education exploring the growing socio-philosophical importance of the University within the Knowledge Society.*

Mr Zaman started by pointing out that our most basic intuitions about reality are being called into questions by the merging of discourses in fields such as consciousness and quantum mechanics.

Therefore a number of high level academics have started to to re-think some traditional assumptions about the relationship between religion and and education.


Zaman & Diboll

Tertiary negotiations; Dr Mike Diboll & Mujadad Zaman

Islam in RE, University of East Anglia, School of Education and Lifelong Learning, June 26, 2014 


The creation of a new paradigm related to epistemology and ontology is one of extreme urgency in view of the deteriorating global situation – economic, political and environmental – which can only be identified as the last stage of post-religious western metaphysics, enframing, as discussed by Lawson at Edinburgh University.

Eager to move into a bright new secular future, scholars of the Enlightenment threw the baby out with the bath water, in the process loosing us the tools for non-nihilist higher level thinking, which were key aspects of traditional religious learning in this country.

RE-tinkering pupils’ minds – yet another “personal development” detour?

As a side note to this, I do see how this could be taken as advocating another detour from the hard presentation of subject matter of religion; and I am aware that there is a strong drive in some circles against “deepening pupils’ understanding of religious ideas” (whether or not these may contribute to personal development) as “a tangible or consistently achievable purpose for a subject.” (quoted from How RE lost its soul by David Ashton).

But as followers of this blog will be aware, I am all for hard, factual learning: Opinions without any foundation are simply whims, and I agree absolutely with this camp about the importance of religious literacy – which incidentally forms the first module of Thursday’s course. (For more on Cooperative Learning and attainment, see previous post on Stalham Academy)

However, religious literacy in a world where we can argue that not even physical objects actually exist, let alone essential religion, building one’s opinions on foundations that are made of (quantum mechanic) sand is not sound.

This goes back to Mr Martin Robinson’s “Research the question before you tell us what the answer is…” we have mentioned in a previous post, where I also in passing discuss the relationship of this issue to Mr Brine’s talk on “Realising the Potential” at the UEA.

It is precisely Mr Zaman’s point that there is a very real and valid reason why Mr Robinson and secular, humanist scholars at Oxbridge are now having a good look at the Trivium, the backbone of European religious education once more.** (Once again I want to promote his book 21c Trivium).

No way back to Kansas

Indeed, any and all attempts to retain a sense of normalcy or ‘business as usual’ or to propose solutions which rest within the failing paradigm of teaching ‘knowledge’ without understanding what knowledge is and how it is acquired must be exposed as irrelevant at best, if not irresponsibly complicit in locking coming generations into repeating our mistakes.

It is my argument that, firmly grounded in social constructivism, the structural approach to Cooperative Learning offers a unique tool to help learners cope and de-construct these paradigms while providing a simultaneous and real integration of hard learning.

On a philosophical level, CL exercises help learners reflect, at their individual levels, on issues of epistemology (“How do you know something?”) and ontology (“What is reality”) in the very practical zone of personal beliefs in the classroom as well as the impact of religion on the lives of people. Here is an exemplary question: “Organisations such as ISIS claim Islam advocates the “Islamic State”. Organisations such as Imaan says Islam advocates “Islamic homosexuality”. But if anyone can reconstruct Islam as they want, does Islam even exist?” How do you know? What does it mean to exist?

Bear in mind this is just glimpsing the tip of the iceberg. Once we start to look at real logic and rhetoric in classic theology and it’s grasp on ontology and epistemology, it’s a different kettle of fish – but necessary, as today’s schoolchildren could very well find themselves – indeed are already, perhaps? – living in a consensual hallucination of the internet, downloaded real-time directly into their nervous system. Is this a game … or reality? Not a moot point for the drone operator.

At the moment, I cannot see which subject apart from RE would be able to launch into this (I am open to suggestions, by all means). But standing on a firm intellectual foundation – for starters being able to distinguish between the necessary, impossible and possible nature of given statements – is necessary as given all 20th century paradigms are collapsing under their own weight.

As I mentioned, the above reflections only serve to form a context to the course Islam in RE, and not a reason to unduly worry your Head: participants will still benefit from the LO’s outlined in the course description. And while not as conspicuously challenging as the above, teaching religious literacy and controversy via Cooperative Learning might give an indication of what is possible, and where I hope to eventually take it in the context of UK education.

Mr Werdelin has developed a propitious educational project whose significance is as far reaching as its necessity in today’s big education debates.

Melding fluency of subject matter with an interactive pedagogy, his sensitivity to faith traditions and the challenges faced by teachers ensures its continued relevancy.

– Mujadad Zaman, MPhil Educational Research Methods , PhD student candidate at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge University.
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* ) Mujadad Zaman has had extensive teaching experience, involved in teaching and supervising for the Undergraduate Educational Tripos. Since starting the PhD, he has presented at numerous international conferences including at the universities of Cambridge, Stanford, LSE and Lancaster. Apart from his interests in education he has presented on a wide range of subjects including comparative education, philosophy of the social sciences, aesthetics, religious studies and Victorian social thought.

Recently he has been Curriculum Coordinator for a new theological college (Cambridge Muslim College) as well as being an educational consultant and researcher for a number of national projects dealing with curriculum development. He has created, taught and evaluated an intensive international summer school, Heritage Summers (Girton College, University of Cambridge) entitled ‘Sliver Spices and Scholarship: An Introduction to Western Intellectual History’ and is currently in the process of setting up an educational support programme for students in Cambridge community.


**) More on the the relation of the Trivium to higher level thinking, identity formation and related community building, see my  Edinburgh University presentation Student-Centred Classroom & the Self-Centred Student.”  Audio recording of the talk now available.


Filed under 21c, Cooperative Learning, CPD, Education policy, P4C, Philosophy for Children, RE, Research