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Theories of learning: experiential learning, complexity science and complex processes of relating

Theories and Principles of Educational Practice (PGCE – L6)

Adapted from work prepared for summative assessment for my PGCE course

This essay presents the results of an analysis of a few key learning theories. Different theories and principles of teaching, learning and communication that promote inclusivity and improve the learning experience have been considered. The key school of learning considered was Experiential Learning, as understood through Kolb’s Learning Cycle, considered against learning theory from the complexity science field, and Stacey’s theory of Complex Responsive Processes of Relating, with added insights provided by Senge and Bohm. The theories have been linked to the teaching and learning environment of work based learning, defined here as organisational learning and the individuals who learn in teams within it. The overall aim of the essay was to articulate how the theories presented might improve the learning experience.

By way of a general introduction it can be said that learning takes many guises, and there is reference made in the literature to fashions of learning (Preiss and Murray, 2005), epistemological beliefs and approaches to learning (Cano, 2005), heuristics and general learning processes and principles of learning (Williams, 2005; Mazur, 2005), approaches to learning, learning strategies, cognition, cognitive style, and cognitive learning (Spicer, 2004; Edwards, 2004; Salvisberg, 2005; Hanaki, Sethi, Erev, and Peterhansl, 2005).

The place and time of learning is presented in the literature as being an ongoing pursuit, which takes place over the life course of the individual in the context of social relationships, and not necessarily by formal or continuous attachment to a learning institution. Mentioned specifically in the literature, for example, is continuous learning, training and development (El-Tannir, 2002), lifelong learning (Johnston, 1999), family learning (West, 2005), and open learning (Boot and Hodgson, 1987; Boot and Hodgson, 1988). However, this does not preclude more directed learning associated with, for example, the specific objectives of an organisation. Learning can therefore also be highly deliberate and instrumental (Zollo and Winter, 2002; Ottewill, 2003), while existing in different forms (Schuster, 2005), and being undertaken in order to effect specific changes and transformations (Wals, Caporali, Pace, Slee, Sriskandarajah, and Warren, 2004; Bowers, 2005; Tosey, Mathison, and Michelli, 2005).

Ryu et al (2005) refer to three learning processes encountered in their research: learning-by-investment, learning-by-doing, and learning-from-others (Ryu, Kim, Chaudhury, and Rao, 2005) (see also (Holtzman, 2005) on learning from doing). Under a similar umbrella, the literature also takes into account models of learning and theories of practice for informal learning environments (Hsi, Crowley, Duschl, Finke, King, and Sabelli, 2004), informal and incidental learning in the workplace (Marsick and Watkins, 1990) and situated learning (Giani and Schroeder, 2004; Lave and Wenger, 1990).

Although the key school of learning considered for this essay was experiential learning, that is presented later. Considered first, therefore, is complexity science and learning. A list was derived of 6 complexity principles that were found to be significant for the specific application to organisations and the people learning interdependently in the context of them (Webb, Wunram, Lettice, and Klein, 2005; Webb, Wohlfart, Wunram, and Ziv, 2004). These included:

  1. Self-organisation & Emergence: Organisations were understood to show self-organising behaviour in terms of the system being able to organise itself, i.e. that the single agents of the system could find a structure bottom-up on their own, without having a master-plan or observational guidance instructing them how to organise.
  2. Edge-of-Chaos: The edge of chaos was interpreted as the balance between structure and flexibility that a company would need to become robust. In complexity science, the edge of chaos, i.e. the zone between complete stability and complete chaos, was taken to represent a peak of creative productivity.
  3. Diversity: Organisations were understood to need a diverse set of agents to be successful and to enable an effective structure to emerge. In companies, this was said to mean that the right mix of people would be indispensable for innovation and creativity. Teams would not be as effective if all team members had the same strengths and weaknesses, as the combination of different abilities increases creativity and adaptability. Diversity can also refer to developing a broad range of products and considering numerous strategies, etc.
  4. History and Time: Organisations and the people interacting in them were understood to have a sense of historicity. This meant that, although the future

behaviour of an organisation could not be extrapolated from the past, the past of this system would still be important for its present and future position.

  1. Unpredictability: The notion of unpredictability implied that the development of an organisation could not be foreseen, i.e. not extrapolated from past behaviour and not calculated on the basis of linear cause-effect relationships.
  2. Pattern Recognition: Organisational and employee behaviour was understood to show patterns. In the natural sciences these patterns can, for example, be observed in a flock of birds or the complex structures of bee hives. Human beings, however, were seen to have a natural urge to identify patterns in the evolution of complex systems, which can be helpful but also dangerous in the corporate context (because the human brain tries to identify patterns even if there are no patterns).

These six complexity science principles were found to be effective in interdependent learning situations between individuals in organisations as a means by which to identify, articulate and understand problems, in terms of undergoing a change in perspective, philosophy and having consciously engaged in a learning process (Webb et al., 2005). These three areas of perspective, learning and philosophy, enhanced by sense-making enabled by the 6 principles, were found to make a substantial impact on the ability of individuals within the organisations studied to solve problems.

In the context of the application and use of complexity science principles as highlighted above, it is the value of complexity science principles in terms of language, metaphor and analogy that is acknowledged. Many analogies and

metaphors are used to elaborate ideas from complexity science, as with examples of ants, termites, birds, and bees. The term complex adaptive system (CAS) is used as a metaphor to explain a network of interrelating agents whose interactions can produce complex evolution (or learning and change between people over time). Metaphors used to explain different parts of this idea include ‘the Cambrian explosion’ (a metaphor for complex evolution), and an ‘ecosystem’ (a metaphor for a network where complex interaction takes place) (Lewin, 1999). In this sense metaphors are ‘a way of thinking and seeing things’ in the natural world, and transferring these thoughts elsewhere (Morgan 1986:12). Metaphors ‘bring new perspectives into existence’ – and in this instance a new perspective is provided for organisations (Grant & Oswick 1996:2).

The language and metaphor of complexity science principles has been recognised for its potential in enabling people to re-visualise their world (McMillan, 2004), by means of developing new ways of speaking and thinking about it, and in turn enabling new thinking to lead to new behaviour. McMillan draws on the work of Morgan (Morgan, 1986) in this context and suggests that of his eight metaphors describing organisations, the metaphor of the organisation as an organism, with links to biology and biological thinking, appear most relevant to the pursuit of linking metaphors and analogies from complexity science to organisations and work, and the experience of the individual and groups in that context. This correlates strongly, for example, with the description of bee hives, ant hills, termite mounds and bird formations as used to explain the theory of complex adaptive systems. These metaphors and analogies from the natural sciences then lend themselves to sense-making and learning about experiences of work and working in organisations. In this way, complexity science is understood to provide metaphors and analogies that give meaning to observed, experienced, and simulated reality (Fuller, 1999; Fuller, 2000; Lissack, 1999; Stacey, 2003a; Stacey, 2001; Price, 1999).

In line with this, Lissack (Lissack, 1997) reported on the initial results of research carried out within a division of a many thousand employee biotech company and within a start-up Internet content provider with fewer than 40 full-time employees. The research focussed on the use of complexity science metaphors and language by managers, Lissack explains:

“Complexity theory research has allowed for new insights into many phenomena and for the development of a new language. The use of complexity theory metaphors can change the way managers think about the problems they face. Instead of competing in a game or a war, they are trying to find their way on an ever changing, ever turbulent landscape. Such a conception of their organisation’s basic task can, in turn, change the day-to-day decisions made by management” (1997:295).

Lissack’s work, in part, inspired the research undertaken in this study, which is reported on in this thesis, but while Lissack explored how the organisations he researched would benefit from learning about complexity science metaphorical concepts in terms of in which types of tasks, he did not report on how the participants in the research made sense of their activities in their organisational context by means of the metaphorical concepts. Neither did he, as Stacey suggested, use analogies from the complexity science domain as analogies for human relating. In this instance, what is missing is Stacey’s list of 5 focus points (2003a:318):

􀂃 Focusing attention on the detailed local interaction between diverse people in the living present as patterning of experience, emergent identity and transformation

􀂃 This means communicative interaction in the form of conversation and how it patterns experience in narrative-like forms. This emphasises the importance of the informal and the narrative rather than the prescriptive and instrumental

􀂃 The importance of conflicting constraints emerging as power and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion and the links to how people deal with anxiety

􀂃 The simultaneous emergence of continuity and novelty, creation and destruction, in the iteration of nonlinear interaction and its amplification of small changes

􀂃 The focus is on lived experience in local situations in the present, paying particular attention to the diversity of relationships within which individual and organisational identities emerge.

Stacey, who calls for a re-evaluation of how we are making sense, advocates sense-making (learning) as explaining, based on a theory of mind, self and society that provides an insightful way of translating some insights from the complexity sciences into an understanding of human acting and knowing that does not rely upon a split between the individual and the social. Instead, Stacey presents a theory of human relating based on continual social interaction of gesture and response, as depicted in the figure below. In this way Stacey puts forward a process-based view, which he describes in the following way (2003a:10):

“The process perspective takes a prospective view in which the future is being perpetually created in the living present on the basis of present reconstructions of the past. In the living present, expectations of the future greatly influence present reconstructions of the past, while those reconstructions are affecting expectations. Time in the present therefore, has a circular structure. It is this circular interaction between future and past in the present that is perpetually creating the future as both continuity and potential transformation at the same time”.

stacey gesture response

Figure: Stacey’s (2001) theory of continual social interaction

In the context of learning about complexity science in general and about the potential of decentralisation as a key lesson from the metaphor of the complex adaptive system in particular, Resnick (Resnick, 1998) advocated a mixture of observation, participation, construction, invention, and experimentation in order to develop strong intuitions and rich understanding, and he put this forward as a challenge for educators and educational developers. In line with this idea, in part, and for the purposes of this study, Kolb’s (1973; 1979; 1984) ideas concerning experiential learning and the learning cycle are of relevance and are described here in more detail.

In 1975, Kolb and Fry presented their applied theory of experiential learning (Kolb and Fry, 1975), which Kolb later elaborated upon (1984) and on which research has been carried out and expanded upon into the fields of business, management and with specific types of application made in organisational contexts (Garvin and Ramsier, 2003; Paul and Mukhopadhyay, 2004; van Reekum, 2005). Drawing from the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget, Kolb (1984) applied his theory of experiential learning to the fields of education, work, and adult development through a description of the process of experiential learning grounded in a model arising from research in psychology, philosophy, and physiology.

Through his model, Kolb provides a typology of individual learning styles and corresponding structures of knowledge in different academic disciplines, professions and careers. As a starting point for his developmental focus, Kolb refers to the work of the Russian cognitive theorist L.S. Vygotsky, who asserted that learning from experience was the process in which human development occurred. For Kolb, this developmental perspective formed the basis for applications of experiential learning to education, work, and adult development (Kolb 1984).

Describing humans as the learning species, Kolb grounded the need to learn in survival dependent on the ability to adapt, both in the reactive sense of fitting into the physical and social world, and in the proactive sense of creating and shaping those worlds. Kolb (1984) differentiated experiential learning theory from learning based on behavioural theories or other implicit theories, which he said underlay traditional educational methods and were based on empirical and rational/idealist epistemologies respectively. This included, for example, cognitive theories of learning that gave more emphasis to the acquisition, manipulation and recall of abstract symbols, or behavioural learning that denied the role of consciousness and subjective experience in the learning process. From this point of departure, he argued, emerged alternative prescriptions for conducting education, relationships among learning, work and other life activities, and knowledge creation. Out of this, however, Kolb proposed a holistic integrative perspective on learning combining experience, perception, cognition, and behaviour.

The key characteristics of experiential learning were defined by Kolb as:

􀂃 Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.

􀂃 This definition emphasises several critical aspects of the learning process as viewed from the experiential perspective:

􀂃 First is the emphasis on the process of adaptation and learning as opposed to content or outcomes.

􀂃 That knowledge is a transformation process, being continuously created and recreated, not an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted.

􀂃 Learning transforms experience in both its objective and subjective forms.

In elaboration of how this continual process of learning takes place, Kolb (Kolb, 1979) presented the learning cycle (see adapted representation of this, in figure below), which is based on the notion that learning is a cyclical process which needs to contain elements of each quadrant of the cycle before learning is possible. This cycle is described in the following way:

“Immediate concrete experience is the basis for observation and reflection. These observations are assimilated into a ‘theory’ from which new implications for action can be deduced. These implications, or hypotheses, then serve as guides in acting to create new experiences” (Kolb, 1973:2).

kolbs learning cycle

Figure : Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Kolb’s learning cycle became pivotal in many theories tying learning to organisational activities and organisational survival, for example, in terms of arguing in favour of giving employees time to reflect what is going on and how things could be tackled differently (Easterby-Smith, 1990:5):

“David Kolb of MIT clearly has a good point when he stresses that learning from experience should be a cyclical process involving a period of Experience followed by a separate period of Reflection. Ideally this should be followed by a chance to put all the different pieces of the puzzle together (Conceptualising) and possibly a reasonably risk-free opportunity to test out this new understanding through Experimentation. That should lead to further Experience, and so on”

Senge also set the need for the learning organisation in a slightly different context:

“From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole. When we then try to ‘see the big picture’, we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organise all the pieces. But, as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile – similar to trying to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. Thus, after a while we give up trying to see the whole together” (1990:4).

Senge therefore set about providing tools and ideas which were aimed to ‘destroy the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces’.

Following a study carried out at Lancaster University, Easterby-Smith reported that in spite of the above advice, some companies were simply more likely to enable managers to develop as a result of their experiences than others and that this seemed to be a fundamental characteristic in organisations that had succeeded in creating the conditions for learning. These companies also made a lot of use of project groups, transient structures, and encouraged people to try out new ways of working. This reinforced Easterby-Smith’s earlier pointers made in reference to the need to have flexibility in the organisational structure and the need to introduce necessary slack into the organisation so that, as mentioned above, people have time to reflect on what is going on, and how things might be tackled differently. Easterby-Smith suggested that an obsession on the part of the organisation with activity and the need to keep the product coming out at the other end was one of the biggest hindrances to organisational learning, and thus the need to refer back to Kolb’s cycle of learning, which advocated steps of action, reflection, conceptualisation and experimentation, (Easterby-Smith, 1990).

Texts providing critical accounts and considerations of the various schools of thought in the organisational learning and the learning organisation domain of particular relevance to this study include Stacey’s position outlined in the context of strategic management and organisational dynamics – a view grounded in the complexity sciences and management theory (Stacey, 2003b). Stacey (2001; 2003a), for example, asserts that organisations do not learn, but it is the people who work in them who learn interdependently through their interactions with one another. Stacey’s starting point for his critique is again the distinction between the social and individual, which he does not agree with, and also his reluctance to talk about an organisation as a reified entity – a subject also considered latterly in the organisational learning literature. Linguistic analysis of the subject of organisational learning and the learning organisation has considered the ways in which the terminology used also introduces, reifies and reinforces ontological meaning within the organisation – for example, in reference to community and culture (Yanow, 1999).

The relevance of the above to the work-related context is that work is very rarely an entirely solitary activity and is instead something which requires interaction with others to varying degrees, and that everyone as individuals has unique learning preferences, says Boyle (2005). He adds that learning how to work well with others is therefore necessary and can be improved by understanding and accepting that others are likely to have different learning preferences and characteristics from your own, and that once this happens learning with others at the level of the team or the organisation is enabled. This is important, states Boyle, because individuals are understood to learn more in dialogue with a team, than they can learn individually. In this way, teams are seen as a fundamental means by which individual and organisational learning can be mediated (Heavens and Child, 1999).

Due to the diversity of personal learning preferences therefore, it becomes important to consider the way in which learning is facilitated in the context of either self-directed learning or learning that takes place within the context of the organisation and teams more specifically. This then shifts the emphasis to tools and methods that aid or facilitate learning in those contexts.


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10 Summer Team Building Session Ideas

Functioning as a well-oiled team is important in any organisation. If you don’t already (and I’m sure you do), how about spending one or two hours per week, where staff bring their own coffee and any nibbles to share to a regular time and place to do a different team building activity.

Purpose: improve your own team working skills, get to know more staff, improve staff interaction opportunities and relationships throughout the summer, in preparation for the new term.

Idea: lots of staff will be taking annual leave during the summer but everyone will be here at some stage and for some of the time. If you are in the building when one of these activities is planned, take the time out to connect with others, improve your team working potential in your organisation – even if you have been to one session, keep going and attend the next! J

Some initial iIdeas for a ten week schedule:

Week 1:

  1. Icebreaker: toilet paper exercise. Quick simple easy icebreaker/energizer requiring only a group and a roll of toilet paper. See the Toilet Paper Icebreaker Exercise on teambuilding games page 2 (source: ).
  2. Treasure hunt with QR codes and iPads with riddles to solve at each spot. Practise your navigational 8 figure grid referencing skills too! Thanks to Drew Thomson on Twitter @mrthomson for the original idea – Drew is head of science and physics teacher at a secondary school in Fife, Scotland.
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 2:

  1. Outdoor icebreaker: the “this pebble is…” exercise (creativity, relaxation, re-energizing, fun, self-expression). This is a quick simple activity for small groups, or for larger groups if split into self-facilitating teams. The underlying ‘skill’ purpose of the activity is to demonstrate and promote creativity. Instruction to group – Take a break outside in the fresh air for five minutes. Stretch your legs. While you are outside find a pebble or small stone and think of a story or meaning for it. As wild or zany or radical or simple or complex story/meaning as you wish (source: ).
  2. Review: Ask people to (briefly) tell their stories/meanings about their pebbles/stones to the group. (There are no right or wrong answers – enjoy and marvel at what people can invent. And see how some people can quickly become very attached to a pebble… because it now has a meaning for them – they created the story/meaning – the ownership of something you create yourself is often a very powerful effect.) Optionally discuss how this activity is different to typical work tasks. (It’s utterly creative – you are making something completely new and being 100% proactive, rather than processing something and being mostly reactive, as in typical work tasks). Creativity inevitably entails self-expression – this can make it hugely empowering and fun, even for serious work situations – did we see examples of self-expression in the stories and meanings that people created for their pebbles? Creativity is extremely valuable in problem-solving, and using personal initiative, together with all aspects of organizational/people/business development. Creativity is a huge component of leadership. It enables leaders to innovate, pioneer, envision, solve challenges, make decisions, reconcile competing things, achieve cooperations, inspire, communicate, etc, etc. It’s a capability that we can all improve (source: ).
  3. Main Activity: Reaching out! Build a bridge out of flip chart paper in the amphitheatre outside North Block. Bridges will be judged on technical quality, time taken to complete, and how well people exchanged ideas to make the end product work (thanks to Suzy Wilkinson for this idea).
  4. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 3:

  1. Icebreaker: lifestyle acronyms game (language and communications, generational issues, demographics, creativity, teamwork). A fun exercise which relates to several juicy modern topics. Adaptable as a quick icebreaker. See the lifestyle acronyms game on teambuilding games page 2 (source: ).
  2. “Don’t eat me!” The river crossing boat puzzle (chicken, fox, bag of corn and a man). In teams, take on the role of the chicken etc, and plan your journey across the river (imaginary one on the sports field) in your boat. Design a boat too if you like 😉 (thanks to Suzy Wilkinson for this idea).
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 4:

  1. Icebreaker: guessing game exercises (ice-breaker, assumptions, guesswork/judgment risks, multiple intelligences, natural strengths, ‘wisdom of crowds’). An interesting and very adaptable exercise for exploring the concept of guessing and intuitive judgment. See the Guessing Game on teambuilding games page 2 (source: ).
  2. Picture This! Draw a basic picture, then sit back to back, paper and pencil in hand, describe the basic shapes of the picture and the other person has to draw it and see how close they get to the original picture. See how your communication and descriptive abilities improve each time as you keep moving on to a new drawing partner. Do this exercise with as many people as possible in the time you have (thanks to Adam Godber for this idea).
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 5:

  1. The Great Escape – Sheffield – or something and somewhere similar, subject to management approval and budget of course. See for more info (thanks to Harriet Cliff at Capita Education FE resourcing for this idea).
  2. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 6:

  1. Icebreaker: ‘how to tie a shoelace’ instructions exercise (warm-up, process design, how to write clear instructions, empathy, etc). A quick simple flexible exercise for any group, to encourage thinking and development of skills for communicating instructions and information to others. See the ‘how to tie a shoelace’ instructions exercise on team building games 2 (source: ).
  2. All tied up! Human knot or the hula hoop one where everyone is in a circle holding hands and you add a hula hoop and you’ve got to get it round the circle back to the start faster than the other groups! Timed activity with a prize (thanks to Debs Beuzeval for this idea).
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 7:

  1. Icebreaker: early bird/second mouse exercise (ice-breaker, creative thinking, presentation skills, debating, analysis, teamworking, group decision dynamics). A simple and flexible activity for small or large groups of all ages, involving several learning elements: strategy, teamwork, presentations, debate, analysis and group dynamics and decision-making. See the Early Bird/Second Mouse Exercise on teambuilding games page 2 (source: ).
  2. Acid River – Team Building- Problem solving – Communication: Four blocks of Wood. You have to cross an imaginary acid river, getting your whole team across, without touching the floor (thanks to Chrissie Vale for this idea).
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 8:

  1. Icebreaker: three describers exercise (icebreaker, introductions, mutual awareness, teambuilding). Teams compete to see how well they know other team members, by attempting to match quick self-penned descriptions to the owners of the characteristics. See the three describers exercise on team building games page 2 (source: ).
  2. Rotation! A problem solving team activity for 8 per group but can have a ninth person as the leader (thanks to Debs Beuzeval for this idea).
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 9:

  1. Icebreaker: truth and lies introductions game. Simple introductions exercise to add some creativity, humour, and group decision-making to courses and other group situations. See the truth and lies icebreaker on teambuilding games page 2 (source: ).
  2. Guided Tour! In teams of 5 create a virtual guided tour of your College (output to be using TEL or some other presentational device). Take the roles of experts or historical figures (thanks for Jason Finley on Twitter @finleyjd for this idea – Jason is a teacher in Vermont, USA).
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Week 10:

  1. Icebreaker: people to introduce themselves individually, in turn, as a kitchen gadget (or kitchen-drawer item) which represents their own personality and strengths. Guide participants to naming their chosen gadget/item and then offering (no more than three) brief points as to their (the gadget’s/item’s) main purpose, strengths, characteristics, etc., which should be a representation of him/herself (at work or home or in life generally, which may be determined by the facilitator depending on wider aims) (source: ).
  2. Main activity: ‘life dreams negotiating’ game (motivation, personality differences, empathy, negotiating, debating, arguing a case, mutual awareness). This flexible easy-to-run activity is ideally for groups/teams of about eight people, or you can easily adapt the exercise for different group numbers. The exercise can be run with a group as small as four. The activity purpose is: to explore life priorities, aims, needs, dreams, etc., (depending on the overall purpose of the meeting); to enable discovery, sharing, and evaluation of personal wishes/needs, and other people’s wishes/needs; to consider personal value systems alongside other people’s value systems; and to negotiate and agree compromises for collective values/wishes/needs, etc. Duration guide – 30 minutes for 8 people. The facilitator can control this activity easily by stipulating times allowed for each stage, by which people have to make their decisions. There is no particular penalty for failing to reach agreement by the time allowed – the sense of wanting to achieve agreement is typically sufficient incentive (beside which, without agreement participants are effectively unable to progress to the next stage). Preparation – Hardly anything is required – as a minimum you need just some blank cards, or stiff paper, postcard size or a bit bigger, and pens/pencils. Sufficient for each delegate to have 5-6 cards to write/draw on. Alternatively and additionally, to add an extra dimension and stimulate more senses, you can compile a big ‘box of bits and pieces’ to represent very symbolically the things that people consider important in life (for example a lemon or potato could represents food or nature, a car key could represent cars or transport or mobility, and a house key could represent security or a home – people may attach/explain their own meanings to symbolic bits and pieces, and/or to hand-drawn images or words). The activity requires each delegate to choose three things that they consider most important in their lives, and then afterwards to discuss and negotiate with another person to agree a revised set of three things that satisfies their life-needs/wishes of the two people as a pairing. Each pairing then repeats the process with another pairing, to agree a four-person set of three things. And then the whole group (say of eight people) must discuss and agree a set of three things, which satisfies the entire group. If you have a group of ten then you can ask people to work in threes alongside pairs. A group of nine could be split into 3 x 3, and then brought together as a whole. It’s flexible provided you follow a basic joining together pattern in one or two steps, culminating in a whole group discussion/agreement. Each ‘thing’ is represented by a card (postcard size or a bit bigger) carrying word or drawing, or by a physical item. The exercise begins by people creating these cards – initially their individually chosen three things – or by selecting and attaching a meaning to three ‘bits and pieces’ from the box. Review: Explore issues and feelings arising during and after the activity, for example: Ease/difficulty of selecting three things; Ease/difficulty in agreeing compromises and understanding other people’s selections; How our feelings towards different things might have altered during the exercise; Levels of cooperation and competitiveness experienced, witnessed; What are common priorities/needs? What are immovable needs, if there are any? And lots of other issues which can arise depending on your surrounding purpose, and the nature of the group (source: ).
  3. Reflective task at the end to assess own team work skills and those of others in the group – set yourself some personal targets and aim to improve next time.

Do you have any thoughts on the activities mentioned above? Can you improve on them, or do you have other ideas? Please share in comments below. Happy teambuilding! Carol

How to use the fish bowl technique for group learning

How to using the Fish Bowl Exercise to Share Group Learning
Like all teachers, I’m still learning. In our knowledge rich, time poor lives, how do we maximise learning between us as practitioners?
Once in a while it’s nice to try a different format in a meeting (or for INSET). Turn it into a mini workshop instead. The knowledge you gather in your day-to-day teaching practice, experience, learning, reading, training etc can feed into and enrich a meeting between you and fellow practitioners if you have an active social learning group to meet with (not one assigned to you by a boss though, just a naturally emerging one that arises bottom up).
One idea for a group learning format for practitioners might be to also combine the use of extracts from a personal reflective diary of sorts as the basis for a Fishbowl discussion together:
Fish Bowl
Basic Principles: This is a type of group discussion that can be utilized when there are two distinct groups. Each group has an opportunity to discuss the issue while the other group observes, much like looking at the fish in a fish bowl. The facilitator is responsible for encouraging discussion during the small group discussion, keeping the discussion only among the inner circle, and then drawing out individual and group reactions during the combined discussion later. The goal of this technique is for one group to experience the other’s discussion, but it is not discussed until the group discussion time. This technique can be utilized to create “buy-in” by two opposing sides.
Key Principles:
Chairs are positioned in two circles – an inner circle facing each other and an outer circle surrounding the inner circle. One group takes their position in the inner set of chairs; the other group takes their position in the outer circle. The facilitator initiates discussion of the issue among members of the inner circle. Members of the outer circle are able to view the discussion but are asked not to discuss anything among themselves. The inner circle discussion is limited to a set time (20 minutes). At the end of the designated time, the groups trade places and the same format is followed for the second group. After completing the second discussion, the inner chairs are added to the outer circle so that both groups are seated in one circle. The facilitator initiates a discussion between the two groups about their observations of the other group. The facilitator encourages discovery of “the other group’s” point of view. The concept of a “fish bowl” is to observe, discover, and analyze another group’s thought process. The combined group discussion should focus on bringing out discoveries about the other group. The facilitator must focus the discussion on facts rather than presumptions. This technique can be used in problem solving by assisting groups to gather insight about another group. Fish bowl discussion can be used as a consensus building technique in a planning or problem–solving process ( uilding Dynamic Groups Developed by Ohio State University Extension, 2000)
Questions used to lead the discussion in the fishbowl could be chosen by the group in advance, and have relevance to the teaching practice issues of those in the group.  Individuals might also want to prepare and distribute handouts that contain the key points relevant to the main issue, and also presenting any key ideas relevant to the topic at hand and how this applies to your teaching practice and/or educational environment in the wider sense. If you do not meet with others in a group, then perhaps you could prepare such handouts anyway and present your line manager with them and engage in discussion with him/her on this topic. Such conversations will add value to your mutual understanding of this topic and your insights will gain depth if you apply them to real teaching practice.
Make a note of any learning points in your diary or reflective log.
Consider the value of this activity and what learning comes out of it and what gaps are identified for future learning and share these in comments below.

Working towards outstanding in differentiation? A 5 Minute Differentiation Planner…


Following a recent lesson observation, where I was given a grade 2 (I’m in FE, we still do that here), I was told to work on differentiation, group profiling, etc. So, inspired by @TeacherToolkit ‘s 5 minute series, I decided to do a 5 minute Differentiation Planner, for either groups or individuals. Picture above, and download a free copy from either of the following links:

PDF file version:

Word doc version:

Let me know you thoughts and feedback in comments below. If you use it, feel free to provide constructive feedback too.

What was it like interviewing Terry Pratchett?

RIP Terry. 

I’d just finished my degree in BA Ancient History & Social Anthropology from UCL in 2001. I had a burning desire to be a reporter. I fancied the Guardian ultimately, but was content getting experience shadowing at my local paper, The Worksop Guardian, instead. I did a little piece on local river pollution and edited a restaurant review. That sort of thing. Then, after my ad touting for a junior reporter trainee position was seen on HoldTheFrontPage, I was offered a job at The Lincolnshire Echo.
I was a Junior Reporter on £10,000 a year. Industry standard I guess. Rotational weekend working. 8am starts or earlier. Four deadlines a day. Not too supportive but lots of grumbles at you if you got stuff wrong. I got two front page stories while there: a road gritting diatribe, and a ‘woman dies in horrific garden fire’ piece. Lots of news in brief bits too all the time. And usually two page lead bits a day to boot.
One story I enjoyed covering while there was being asked to go and interview Terry Pratchett when he turned up to do a book signing session at the local Ottakars store. I hadn’t a clue what I was meant to ask him. Id read a few of his books but this was the first time Id had to interview someone who was even mildly famous. I asked the deputy sub under news desk editor in charge of making my life a misery what she recommend I ask him. I knew it would be her who would give me grief if I got it wrong.
“Ask him what his three greatest achievements were, or something like that” she said.
“Right…” Enamoured, I left. Notepad and pen in hand.
I turned up as the queue to get to see Terry had snaked up to the third floor from the ground. He was sitting on a chair at a desk to the left hand side as you walked in the shop. He had his trademark hat on, as did many others in the queue to see him. One woman had fainted on the third floor, due to heat and queuing fatigue rather than excitement to see Terry I think. I found out later she had made a full recovery.
Terry was a bit reluctant to talk. I don’t think he enjoyed being interviewed. It seemed like he played hard to get, as though he didn’t want to tell me anything at all if he could possibly help it. He kept trying to deflect questions back at me, rather than letting me interview him. I stood chatting with him in between his signing of people’s books. A member of staff from the store was a bit irritated by my presence, as were those in the queue whose time I was stealing away from them talking to him.
Terry tried to get the measure of me. He looked me up and down, and complimented me on my shiny shoes. I smiled. I reverted to the inane “what are your greatest achievements?” question. He thought it was the daftest question ever, you could tell. So he chuckled and said he had once grown a three and a half pound carrot. I decided not to show disbelief or question it. I thought it more fun to accept it playfully.
He revealed he used to work at a newspaper once upon a time. So my closing question was, if you were a reporter, what question would you ask yourself?”
He smiled and said: “Id ask if I *really* ever grew a three and a half pound carrot!” I smiled and made a note. Then I got bustled away by the store assistant who thought Id really outstayed my welcome now.
Then, a year or so later, I read an interview of Terry in the Sunday Times. He had been asked about the questions he had been asked in interviews in the past. He said “I was once asked what my greatest achievements were, so I said I’d once grown a three and a half pound carrot”. I laughed my head off. I’ve still got copies of both articles. Mine and the Sunday Times one.
Pic below. I like Terry. He made me laugh and smile, as did his books.

Somebody somewhere said it was outstanding to… 

… put a list of lesson objectives on the wall and tick them off as they get done during class time so that students know where we are up to and what is still to be done. 

So putting a list of activities on the wall to work through and ticking them off as you work through them is outstanding classroom practice? Why?

I’ve been told this each time over the last few years when I’ve been given a 2 for good, but not a 1 for outstanding. So I tried the list thing. And you could see the hearts and faces fall. All the stuff we are going to plough through. One by one. No surprise. A boring list. And the implication that as soon as the stuff on it has been ticked off then surely you can leave. So hurry up then. Get it ticked off. Have we done yet? Can we go now? Oh no! All THAT still to do!!! Hearts and faces fall again. 

No. I’m not writing a list and ticking it off as we go. It’s demoralising and boring. Takes out any sense of adventure and the unknown. 

Ways to lighten the load, and how to survive your teaching career

“Ten Ways to Lighten the Load”:

  1. Put your own well-bring first: invest in hygiene and professional appearance (bathe every day, hair washed and combed – seems obvious but not everyone does!), and get enough sleep.
  2. Invest in your own health to be able to give more back: exercise, massage, etc.
  3. Be assertive with boundaries, roles and responsibilities: focus your energy on essential tasks, choose your battles and don’t waste time and energy on internal politics
  4. Don’t feel guilty for having a life outside work: go out for dinner and enjoy yourself etc.
  5. When planning lessons, re-use material, ‘steal’ and innovate, recycle, adapt; share within a team.
  6. Don’t over prepare (you don’t have to go over the top with proving your knowledge)
  7. Mark in large batches, get into work earlier if possible, lock yourself in a classroom without any distractions and just get it done
  8. Use student self assessment and peer assessment strategies in class. Get them to critique their own work. But not at the expense of omitting quality.
  9. Don’t rush through a lesson. Save any leftover bits for ‘next week’.
  10. Encourage student self-study / research to address lesson aims and objectives. Perhaps base associated tasks on Bloom’s Taxonomy to help ‘deeper engagement and learning with application’ take place.

“How I will survive the start of my teaching career”

Your PGCE and any CPD should offer some demarcation point by which to start afresh. At each such opportunity you should put down in writing a rethought mission statement. It could go something like these sample statements below:

“Firstly, my main objective is to put the students’ learning first. But in doing this I believe we have to work smarter, not necessarily harder for the sake of it. The ways we do this means prioritising work, focusing on the important stuff that really homes in on student learning. I only have to manage a workload based on 15-16 hours a week direct teaching time and outside this I have to fit in all the preparation, marking, feedback, administration, personal training requirements, email communication and meetings besides. Some things therefore have to be put on a back burner and lessons and student feedback related to setting learning targets comes first. However, keeping records up to date on registers, eILP systems etc is essential and part of our professional responsibilities, and if this gets neglected the students suffer in the long run too. The support infrastructure isn’t there to help the students if we don’t keep these systems up to date at the same time as teaching them. Making sure student absences are addressed quickly and directly is paramount for the success of my students. I have good support from my Head of Learning who acknowledges this too and really encourages my assertive communication of these issues between relevant staff in order to give the students the help they need. Therefore, some things we perceive as less important administration is actually as important if not more so than some aspects of lesson planning.”

“Also, it’s great to have a sociable working environment. Last weekend I went away for a leaving do of one of the members of staff from our staffroom and came back totally refreshed and got a million things done because I was so full of energy and productive again after having had a really fun break. But in the working environment we also need to get our heads down sometimes and have undistracted, focussed time, just to bang out the more routine admin and organisational tasks that many people feel as though drag them down and are the bane of their lives. I hate to admit it but I actually like a bit of admin and paperwork. It’s quite therapeutic to do a structured task once in a while and create order out of disorder. But I need some time to do that where other people aren’t chattering away in the background. That means I either have to pick a time when the staffroom is empty to do it, or go somewhere else.”

“I take the initiative in sharing resources and lesson materials, because I believe that you get back what you give out. This is largely true. But not always. So sometimes you have to ask for what you need as well. Don’t be afraid to ask if you need something. It might not always be there either but it could lead to doing something in another way you hadn’t thought of before.”

What’s your mission statement for teaching or leading?

Personal Reflections: Purpose, Vision, Goals… What’s Your Why? How Can You Start to Get There?


If your purpose explains what you are doing with your life, what’s your purpose? Some people will phrase this as ‘What’s your why?’

If you don’t know, look at how your life is currently unravelling. I guess you need to look at what you do day to day and let that explain your purpose. Maybe you are just coasting along and you didn’t even realise that if your actions are what defines you that you then must currently have purpose ‘x’. Do you like purpose x? Are you happy with all aspects of your self examination? If you don’t like purpose x then you need to reflect on what actions are defining your purpose in this way. It’s only then you can change some of your actions to redefine your purpose to something else you are more happy with. What purpose would you like to define you? What actions do you need to make that shift towards that purpose becoming real?

To give your purpose a real overhaul in this way, it seems to be that your vision is key. What vision do you have of yourself and your life? (Link back to ‘what’s your why?’) That’s the hard bit. Once you know what that is you can make your actions fit for purpose in quick time (through alinging the right ‘what’ and ‘how’).

Creating a vision takes effort. It’s not for the lazy. One of the easiest ways to start though is to examine your own values. What are they? What do you feel is important in life? What takes precendence over what for you?

Once your vision based on your values is firmly in place, small goals will help you realise it – SMART goals! For example, if you would like to improve as a teacher, or become a middle leader or SLT/Head, what goals are you going to set to achieve the vision of the kind of teacher or leader you want to be? And before that, what is your vision of a good teacher/leader? What values underpin that vision? Why do you want to be a teacher/leader? Are you sure this is your purpose? Look at your day to day and week to week actions… Do they define a good teacher/leader in your view? What actions do you need to change to be the teacher/leader you want to be?

What if… your true purpose isn’t really teaching or in school leadership? What is it?

Thought of the day: Identify the problem

In the words of Vanilla Ice, ‘If there’s a problem, yo I’ll solve it…” (See for more inspiration).
In a tizz?
Step 1: identify the problem.
Step 2: explore possible responses
Step 3: implement options
Step 4: evaluate outcomes
Works every time. Stay calm. Just identify the problem.


Teaching job cover letter? Inspired by Leonardo

After my visit to the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Florence this week I bought a book about him. It’s interesting and amusing. See the photos below for an extract from the book giving a translation of a cover letter in application for work by Leonardo written in 1482 to Ludovico Sforza, regent of Milan. I had a play and wrote my own version, addressed instead to a Headteacher, for a teaching job:

Most Magnificent Headteacher, having now considered all the research evidence, observed all the guru teachers in practice, and weighed all the edu blogs and twitter resource shares in the balance, having attended all the teachmeets, teacher conferences and CPD events, having partaken in all the twitter edu chats and read all the edu books, I am emboldened without prejudice to anyone else to put myself in communication with your most omniscient self, in order to acquaint you with my teaching secrets, thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate, by micro teach or cover supervisor session, all those matters which are in part briefly recorded below:

1) I have plans for lessons, very brief and very rigorous, and very suitable for writing in LESS than five minutes…
2) When a school is to be besieged by Ofsted I know how to get the news fast, and how to construct an infinite number of… Pieces of evidence of excellent teaching and student learning over time…
3) If because of the high (unreasonable) standards of an HMI it should be impossible to impress him/her by bombardment with marking evidence, I know methods of discombobulating any inspector, even if the patriarchal of Gove-ites.
4) I have plans for making isolation units, convenient and easy to transport included students to
5) And if it should happen that any teaching and learning is outdoor, I have plans for constructing many outstanding lessons, most suitable for stretching and challenging the most gifted and talented
6) Also I have ways of arriving at a certain fixed spot by QR code orienteering activities, to divert students through caverns and secret winding passages of the school refectory
7) Also, I can make things, and I can get all the students to make all the things, too. Then they can blog about it, with lots of digital wizardry, without needing to fear about safeguarding, or whatnot.
8) Also, if need shall arise, I can make the most beautiful teaching resources, overlays for analysis of poetry and literature, with useful shapes, like hexagons and triangles and cubes, quite different from those in common use
9) where it is not possible to employ school iPads, I can supply smartphone apps for students and other gadgetry of wonderful efficacy not in general issue. In short, as the variety of teaching and learning circumstances shall necessitate, I can supply an infinite number of different digitally native tools for teaching and learning
10) in time of high achievement, outstanding rating by Ofsted, I believe that I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in teaching, in the engagement of students both struggling and gifted, and in safely isolating the included ones
11) also, I can write teaching research papers for high impact journals in which my work will stand comparison with that of anyone else, whatever teacher that may be
12) moreover, I would undertake the work of getting all the students A*, the record of which shall endure in the Guardian GCSE results tables with immortal glory and eternal honour for at least a month to the auspicious memory of yourself and the board of governors of your illustrious school.

And if any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I offer myself as ready to make trial of them in your school or in whatever place shall please your magnificence, to whom I commend myself with all possible humanity.

Do I get the job? I can organise good parties, too.