Category Archives: science

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.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Enquiry & Immersion C1P

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

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

Achievement Motivation

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



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

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

Matthew Vince

Visit full video gallery.

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

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

3. Marking and feedback are not the same thing

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

I again refer to Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, I admit my total bafflement:

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

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


Kim#s cards

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


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

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


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

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


Some related articles

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss

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

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

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

Monitoring and real-time feedback in the Cooperative Learning classroom

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



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A lesson at the Association for Science Education

Ben and I presented our first joint session to Science teachers at the ASE conference in Birmingham yesterday; in spite of very positive feedback, it was a lesson that taught us something.

First of all, I’ve always run my CPD with delegates playing the role of their own pupils. One reason is because Cooperative Learning cannot be grasped as a theory – it is in every way a practical, immersive experience. Another reason is that trying it first hand creates empathy with your pupils and insight into the unique challenges they face when learning together in such a structured fashion.

However, in yesterday’s session, we found that presenting  a reading skills lesson to highly skilled readers quickly becomes as convoluted as it sounds.

Reading a paragraph out and then having your partner summarising or commenting on it works extremely well from KS4-10. But, to most secondary science teachers, all motivated and highly skilled readers, reading alone and in their own tempo is far more effective –  as opposed to children and young adults who can read alone for half an hour and then have no clue what the text was about.

ASE Ben and Jakob

Ben & Jakob at Birmingham University

As Ben commented from his experience, this lesson is actually far more effective to students. Also far quicker, as youngsters do not delve into each nook and corner as intelligent, professional adults in a paid session tend to do. In the ten minutes they had, many pairs only managed to go through one or two of a 6 page extract from On transfer as the goal in literacy by Wiggins.

You know you are working with science teachers when a delegate turns around to you and says “This text is as dense as tungsten.”

One major mistake on our behalf was to pick this text on research into … well, reading strategies. Suddenly, content and objective became inextricably garbled.

In summary…

We chose it because we wanted to present something where all attendees were on an equal footing, but using a text on quantum computing or somesuch from Scientific American would have been a lot better.


To give an example, the opening Catch1Partner with vocabulary from the text came across precisely not as vocabulary from the text, but as general introduction to reading skills. “reciprocal learning” and “prior knowledge” should have been replaced with “quants” and “nano” had we only gone with Scientific American.

(More on rote learning with Catch1Partner here. Just skip past the discussion of Mr Peal’s book).

We are aiming to upload materials for the benefit of delegates over the next few days. In the meantime: I discussed introvert learners with some of you. The article I mentioned was Inside out? collaborating introverts.

Our introduction mentioned Cooperative Learning in relation to the Sutton Trust. For anyone considering presenting this method to school budget-controllers, this is a must read: EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit; a Cooperative Learning gloss.

I am aiming to get an article up on on how Feedback, another Sutton Trust/EEF best practice, integrates with Cooperative Learning.

Stay updated on twitter.

More on the actual lesson on CooperateBeLiterate.

Thank you for your attendance. As always with Cooperative Learning, I am amazed how much attendees get out of it compared to quality and quantity of the actual input.

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Cooperate Be Literate

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

Given the routine assertions that Cooperative Learning denotes wet talking exercises, some science and maths teachers I have spoken to have raised concerns. During development of the courses to Norwich Primary Academy, fate has willed that the deputy head, Mr Ben Rogers, was point man. Before his tenure at NPA, Ben has taught science at secondary level for 18 years and sees what Cooperative Learning can actually do. Many will be familiar with Ben’s blog, ReadingforLearning, and his special focus on reading in Science as a very distinct and largely unexplored area.

However there is a dire need, it seems. Ben has investigated the reading habits of one hundred scientist. One of the main conclusions from the survey is that professional scientists and engineers teach themselves to read subject texts, at least until college (only 10% of the professionals who responded to the survey were taught to read science texts at school, 84% said they taught themselves).

As a science teacher, Ben believes that technical texts require specific reading strategies. As a Cooperative Learning aficionado, I want to prove the role of Cooperative Learning in Science.

I do not mean just in relation to drilling the definitions, vocabulary and procedures associated with these subjects. I aim to facilitate transferable skills, such as contextualisation and higher level thinking,  through negotiation of meaning.

I hope to prove that the tight structuring afforded by Cooperative Learning will simultaneously provide classroom control, focus on objectives and effective assessment, while giving science students a sense of both freedom to investigate and accountability for their own learning.

Read Ben’s reflections on

Read the survey on educationinchemestry


Filed under CooperateBeLiterate, Cooperative Learning, Enquiry, Information, Lesson plans, science