The Highland CPD journey towards A Curriculum for Excellence and Assessment is for Learning, featured on pages 12-13, has trained teachers in four key methods - dialogue; peer and self-assessment; making thinking explicit; and learning logs. Henry Hepburn reports
The P2 boy's performance was "amazing", according to teacher Audrey Kellacher. He had led his 24 classmates through discussion of a poster project. At one stage, he politely advised a peer to come up with something better than a "yesno question" - the boy, one of the weakest pupils, said he wanted something that would force him to think a bit more.
What made this scene from Inverness's Crown Primary last month remarkable was that a similar review of a poster project had taken place in February. At that stage, Mrs Kellacher recalls, even the most able pupils had struggled to come up with more than a couple of sentences when asked to talk in front of their 24 classmates.
She has been directly involved with the Highland FLaT project since January, and believes the shared aim of all CPD to formative assessment has had a clear impact on pupils. The amount of CPD has also helped: she has attended six full-day sessions, and has been delighted at the opportunity to work with experts such as thinking skills guru Robert Fisher, "whose ideas we've only been able to read in books before".
One of the most important ideas to take root is that of "meaningful dialogue" - it is a common belief that real learning comes through writing, but evidence has emerged that rich use of spoken language is a powerful boost to learning.
Professor Fisher, in a paper produced in collaboration with Highland teachers, underlines that, for many pupils, "school may be the only place where they experience and develop habits of reasoned talk".
Questions should open dialogue where pupils have time to discuss ideas with each other before reporting back to the class.
Teachers should play the "puzzled listener", who gives children thinking space by saying "I see", "OK" and "Um", and responds constructively. He or she must not carry on as if the pupils' response was irrelevant. Pupils should use fully-formed sentences with words such as "think" and "because", rather than short phrases or one-word answers.
Improved dialogue is also taking place between teachers, thanks to a coherent continuing professional development programme that encourages the exchange of ideas across schools, sectors and even authorities. Mrs Kellacher is keen on the "talk gym" methods used in Inverclyde, where special hand gestures help children to start more profound discussions; the P2 boy mentioned above made good use of these.
Mrs Kellacher has worked in Malawi, where she was impressed with the "clear sense of purpose" among pupils and staff - not to mention high attendance rates - despite a class of 400 pupils and a paucity of resources; they saw school as crucial to giving them a better life. Truly meaningful dialogue, she believes, is giving her own pupils that same sense of purpose.
Making thinking explicit
It is a skill unique to humans: metacognition - or thinking about thinking. According to Robert Fisher, an expert in thinking skills, it is a "key factor in the success of learning - in knowing how best to plan, predict and remember".
Better thinking skills are also inextricably linked to our ability to understand our own emotions and those of others. "Self-awareness enables us to be more authentic in our dealings with other people, and to make better choices and decisions for ourselves, because they are based on more complete self-knowledge," writes Professor Fisher.
Paul Oparka, a P3-4 teacher at Tomnacross Primary, near Inverness, has used techniques such as group work and learning logs to make thinking more explicit; these have led to a fundamental shift in the relationship with his pupils. "The main focus is that the pupils are trying to identify what the next steps are," he says. "I also ask things like, 'What would you like your teacher to do?'. I am actually part of the process myself - I set goals for myself.'"
The practical impact on the classroom would be clear to anyone who visited it, then stepped back in time to see the same pupils a year or two ago: "I think they would see a lot less talk from the children and a lot more talking from the teacher."
Pupils' ability to look at a task and break it down into what makes it successful has been the main improvement. They are better at "reflecting on the quality of their product", adroitly handling complex concepts in all areas of the curriculum and showing greater concern about the quality of their work.
One pupil said: "I was successful in drama because I thought really carefully in my mime about the size of things in mime and tried to keep the sizes the same."
Making thinking explicit has also saved valuable time, as Mr Oparka explains: "I'm finding I'm spending a lot less time going over the criteria of new tasks. Because we reflect so much on all aspects of what we do, if we come to do a new lesson, generally the kids know what the success criteria are."
Pupils' command of their own thinking has seen them flourish in a project of daunting scale and unpredictability. Since January, the class has controlled its own imaginary island community, Figliaca, where they explore "just about anything", including imaginative responses to issues such as law-making, immigration, systems of government, providing places of worship, and wildlife conservation.
"I think I'm much more willing to take risk and commit a lot more time to doing something in depth," Mr Oparka says.
These are becoming an emblematic tool of the Highland approach. Little books are used by pupils to record their progress in class, but the focus goes beyond what they have done to what they have thought and learnt. Moreover, as Kevin Logan puts its: "A learning log is a commitment."
At Raigmore Primary, P4 teacher Autumn Macaulay started using learning logs in 2006. Some children reacted better than others. One boy dismissed it as another thing the teacher wanted them to do - but now he cannot stop writing. Most have embraced the idea, but a few list problems without delving deeply into why they exist.
Children must know what the logs are for, so they do not go through the motions. They have worked much better since one pupil suggested putting up a plan for the week, because, by Friday, he was finding it difficult to remember what had happened earlier in the week.
The logs provide a space exempt from traditional teachers' concerns, such as spelling.
"It's not the priority - that's not what I'm looking for," Miss Macaulay says. "It's their own space to write down their ideas, not to worry about whether they've spelt something correctly. It's theirs, and it's going to be valued whatever it is."
The benefits are clear: "They don't come up against a brick wall - they're able to find ways to get round any hurdles. They recognise that they've done really well, and that builds self-esteem and confidence. People will comment on how much more confident and involved they are."
Miss Macaulay believes the benefits extend outwith the classroom. Pupils deal with homework better, and have "more strategies" for problems in everyday life - as in school, "a hurdle is like a learning opportunity".
Peer and self-assessment
Kevin Logan, a mathematics teacher who has been involved in developing thinking skills for more than 10 years in schools within Highland Council, is adamant: "It's not a luxury." He is referring to the use of peer and self-assessment in the upper stages of secondary school. Anecdotal evidence suggests classes using such methods are flourishing; ongoing research for the Scottish Qualifications Agency will pin down the benefits more precisely.
The sheer scale of the Highland CPD Journey is impressive, and this area is no exception. There were about 35 case studies involving peer and self-assessment in various subjects at the upper stages of secondary, between January and May last year.
Robert Fisher notes the prevalence in A Curriculum for Excellence of phrases beginning "I have ..." and "I can ...", and observes: "If young people can chart their own progress against this sort of description, they will become more confident about their own learning and abilities."
Peer and self-assessment put more emphasis on "I", and the latter is "essential" if pupils are to understand whether they have reached a "learning goal".
Jo Scott-Moncrieff is an English teacher and principal teacher of guidance at Glen Urquhart High in Drumnadrochit, one of six Highland schools working on peer and self-assessment with close reading this year. "The feedback has been very positive - teachers have felt pupils have been more enthusiastic, more engaged," she says.
Miss Scott-Moncrieff disputes suggestions that peer and self-assessment are too time-consuming, because "that suggests that it's needlessly draining time, whereas it's actually time being well spent".
She believes a "sea change" is necessary to overcome the dominance of summative assessment in S4-6: "The question shouldn't be how to squeeze formative assessment into a summative course, but how to change summative assessment to reflect the richer learning experience which takes place when formative assessment is shaping pupils' learning experiences."
Teachers involved in the Highland CPD Journey will share their thoughts at a conference in Inverness on June 11.
BEHIND THE SCENES
An impressive array of thinkers has contributed to Highland's pioneering work with formative assessment.
In 2004, along with Strathclyde University professor of education Brian Boyd, Highland's learning and teaching development officer Kevin Logan began to explore links between making thinking skills explicit and formative assessment.
In the past four years there has been heavy involvement - including direct work with teachers - of thinking skills expert Robert Fisher, recently retired professor of education at Brunel University, and Paul Black, emeritus professor of science education at Kings College London and one of the leading figures in developing formative assessment. Other significant contributions have come from Stirling University's Mark Priestley and educational consultant Eric Young.
The Scottish Government and the Scottish Qualifications Authority have asked Professor Boyd - a member of the review group which produced A Curriculum for Excellence - and Glasgow University's Louise Hayward to uncover, in separate studies, why the Highland approach, even at a relatively early stage in practical terms, has been successful. They will publish the results this autumn.