Can we empower children to plan and assess their own learning?

Can we empower children to plan and assess their own learning?

If someone asked me this question early on in my career, I would have probably laughed and thought, “that's all we need, like we don’t have enough to do!”

Over my years in teaching I have seen teaching styles and approaches come and go and nothing has really stood out for me. I just did what the other teachers were doing, planning and resourcing everything step-by-step for the children - because, at the time this meant you were an organised teacher who had good management control of your class. Leaving exhausted at the end of the day with 30 books to mark at home, this was seen as the norm and if you were following this daily routine, you were seen as a good teacher. It never felt quite right, but I was surrounded by teachers who were doing the same thing - so what was wrong with it?

Being brave to change.

Over the years I always knew that as a teacher I wanted more, I loved my job, but it never quite felt rewarding - my children were making progress but were they happy learners? Deep down I wanted my children to be more independent to tell me something out of the box yet, I didn’t know how to achieve this. About 6 years ago I was at a conference when I came across The Learning Power Approach - an approach where children become leaders of their own learning - where they question and make connections with prior learning and life experiences. And that was it - that’s what I had been looking for.

Six years on, I can say with confidence I have worked hard at changing and adapting my own mind set and elements of my teaching style - with the wondering in mind- ‘they know more than you think’. From thinking It is my job to do everything for them and that I know best to the more things children can learn for themselves, the more independent they will be, not only in school but independent lifelong learners.

After years of applying and fine-tuning this mindset and belief in children as learners, I decided to really challenge myself and them by giving my children the opportunity to plan a topic for themselves. It was during a Year 4 PPA session last summer  and we were discussing our final summer topic for the Year - ‘Getting to know the U.K’ and I had already decided to take the bold step and allow my class to plan this topic.

Planning our project

Why?

I felt confident and felt my children were now ready to take on this  responsibility. I had seen them thrive and develop as independent learners and I also knew many of them were ready to share and think about the next steps in their learning, planning to work together, giving instructions and being flexible, using what we already know and exploring areas we were unsure of. In short, we had done a lot of groundwork in building the children's strengths as strong, independent learners.

How?

After having a little chat with my class (most of them looked puzzled at this point) a group of them were ready to lead and take responsibility while others needed more reassurance. In this case I felt the skill set and learning habits were already changing for many of my children in my class during lockdown - I could see that many of them  were becoming more adaptable to change, and this was often evident through our remote learning. The bigger risk takers would often want to lead the conversation by sharing what they had learnt or discovered, whereas the others were just happy to see what their peers had achieved, and this would encourage them to then share something next time.

Going back to the how, in order to reassure my slightly reluctant ones,I feel it is my job to gently and warmly steer all of them in the right direction, allowing them all to feel valued and heard. I discussed the purpose and gave learners time to jot down any questions. Some felt confident as we delved in, while others felt overwhelmed. What did this mean and what would this look like? I explained that even I didn't know the end result, just like them this was something I was doing for the first time and that we would be on this journey together- the difference being they were in the driver's seat instead of me. And so it began:

  • Children worked in mixed groups to mindmap their initial ideas. I selected the groups because I wanted a range of skills within the group. The speaker, the individual to question, the one to give instructions, the organiser and the one who would work well with certain learners.


  • We used our thinking questions to keep us focused and on task. This enabled them to think and share their ideas about what they already knew about the U.K and what they would like to find out.

My job during this task was to jot down the language being used.This provided almost an assessment tool to check that we were all on the same page, reminding children again of the purpose.

To be able to step back and take on a listening role, enabled me to assess the learning taking place and it was the perfect  opportunity to capture the skills we had worked on throughout the year, to actually see them come to life. It was a great way to see how collaborative learning looked different group to group, where some pupils were able to give each other roles of responsibility and others took the lead to distribute jobs. Some observations I made in my listening role included:

  • A development of peer to peer relationships - taking turns, asking questions and supporting one another.
  • Children involving learners who  found it difficult to engage (SEN)
  • A confident sharing of ideas and prior knowledge ‘I remember this…’  ‘Do you remember when…’
  • Learners using the resources around the classroom
  • Learners showing respect for one another.

This was definitely a learning experience for me, there were many times when I just wanted to step in and fix it, but I didn’t, because deep down I knew they were leading their learning. There was a sense of real buzz in the classroom and surely that’s a good sign.

Each group was given time to discuss and jot down their ideas.

After the session, I took the time to look through the mind maps generated by the children and found a number of crossovers but did not mention this to the children as I wanted them to spot the links. I selected the common themes I felt I had found and shared my thoughts with the children. We discussed time constraints and that although some of them had wonderful ideas we would not be able to cover everything -  which then meant we had to prioritise. The groups needed to collaborate and decide what they wanted to keep. They also took the time to think over their ideas and questions and were beginning to find a pattern and similarities with the ideas from the other groups. Together we looked at all the key research questions. There were definitely disagreements, but I have to say they were comfortable disagreements. There were questions- what if we change our mind about the research question? My job was to remind them that if something needed to change - we would deal with it then - for now it was important to  make a start. I reminded them once again of the possible  time difficulties and how we needed to use this effectively. By the end of the discussion they had all come to an agreement.




I could have easily saved myself time and taken the decisions for them, but felt it was important for them to see - that sometimes we have to adapt and change - and that this is all part of the learning process. I was able to observe and be part of the  speaking and listening, the collaborative decision making, the questioning and reasoning and most importantly  learning together.



Next step/Challenges

We then Selected the top ten themes  and broke them  down further and the burning question - What was the U.K like hundreds of years ago? (Please Mrs Singh can we explore this question?). One of the challenges was while the children had mapped out their thoughts and ideas, I also had to bear in mind whether we were covering the Geography skills from the National Curriculum. I have to be honest, this was not always possible, because in my opinion if you intend to give learners  the opportunity to plan their learning, you almost  need them to go with it - without saying  you can’t do this but instead you can do this. I was very open with my learners about this.

Looking at the areas the children had selected I then worked with them to see where we could link some of their ideas to the National Curriculum. We looked at the physical and human geography of the UK instead of looking at it more globally as the NC suggested. This way we were able to keep focused and remind ourselves: what is the purpose? Why am I doing this? How am I going to do this?

Children were enthusiastic and eager to go - the next conversation was about - How are we going to present our learning. The children’s ideas included:

  • Google Slides Presentation
  • Posters
  • Information booklets
  • CollageModels

Outcomes

This topic was originally  planned to be a 7 week project of which we lost two weeks due to isolation. With a great deal of determination and effort the learners wanted to continue so we did.

In school we explored the timeline of British settlement to the present day- this was done practically using images. Children explored the four countries of the U.K - each group then selected a capital city and shared and presented their facts. This alone took three afternoons. To see and witness children celebrating their learning with their peers is incredibly rewarding, not only for the children, but also for adults.

We tried to cover parts of it over our online teaching/learning- although that was great for one third of the learners who had the resources available and were able to lead their learning from home, just their enthusiasm to continue is testament to how engaged they were with this project. however for the others it proved to be challenging to be away from the safe learning environment, the collaboration and guidance of their peers and adults.

Children came away with beautifully illustrated facts and information based on the physical and human geography of this little island we all call home. Sculptures and models of famous landmarks.

Would I do it again?

Yes, I would -  it is not something that just happens it is something you have to work on together gradually over the year. As a teacher you train them and see them develop a skill set which allows learners to think for themselves to become: Creative learners, critical thinkers, inquisitive and most importantly adaptable.

Due to the circumstances we were unable to reflect and share our learning journey - what we felt worked well and what we could have done differently - this was something I was looking forward to but sadly was not possible however, I can honestly say I was happy to be part of a learning environment where the learners were the leaders - a classroom full of talk, ideas, disagreements, support, emotions and ownership.

Summary

Child - planned projects- WHY?

  • Enthusiasm and interest
  • Ready and eager to take on more responsibility
  • To develop collaborative relationships
  • Opportunities for speaking and listening

Challenges

  • Time
  • Lack of resources
  • Having to stop and cover other lessons
  • Convincing other adults - to have a go
  • Disruption due to Covid
  • Not  having had  the time to celebrate and reflect

Outcomes

  • An opportunity to guide and take ownership of learning.
  • The rich conversation using the language of learning.
  • Taking the learning out of the classroom
  • Incredibly varied presentation of learning
  • Parental involvement
  • The learning buzz in the classroom
  • Learning together

My learning -  what would I do the same?

  • Explain the why.
  • The purpose of this.
  • Learners to mind map initial ideas
  • Would I do it again? Definitely a YES!!

What would I do differently?

  • Have a clear focus of possible outcomes
  • A project that is about 4 weeks
  • Time to look back and reflect on what went well and what didn’t? This would then inform future planning
  • Capture the learning process from the start e.g photographs, video clips and examples of presentation.
  • Create a learning journey - look at where we started - look how far we have come. How did we get here? How did we overcome challenges?
  • Share the learning with other colleagues/classes and parents.



Post written by:

Bimla Singh