Holyrood or bust!

With 15 minutes to pack in ethnic minority educational solutions to all society’s ills, it felt like an audition.

An intense two days in Edinburgh for the BRAIS conference saw a heady mix of ethnographers, anthropologists, RE teachers, social scientists, philosophers and every phD under the sun presenting a wide range of research within the framework of “Islamic studies.”

Holyrood 3

This included two separate sessions on education, Practice and Theory & Method in the Holyrood Room where I just managed to read out The Student-Centred Classroom or the Self-Centred Student – challenges and opportunities of Cooperative Learning for Muslim learners” under the sinister gaze of a timekeeper armed with cards in aggressive colours. I’ll see if I can get the recording up on werdelin.co.uk later.

While I do intend to honour my commitment to debrief participants of the recent Healing Fractures workshop, I want to note the overlap between this type of classroom discovery made available through managed classroom social constructivism and a recurring theme at the BRAIS conference: the way identity under post-modernism was overtly and covertly tied to epistemology across subjects and research areas. This was more than a red thread – it was the thin red line in the “battle of meaning”, to quote Anna Piela of Leeds Trinity University.

One of the most interesting, and sinister, talks in this regard was Mohammed Elshimi’s Identity, Citizenship, and Security: What is Deradicalisation? which pulled the carpet under the post 9-11 top-down attempts at imposing a dichotomy of Muslim identity (radical-liberal) which leave people feeling threatened, dis-enfranchised and alienated – in an attempt to provide security.

I would like over the coming weeks to break down my notes from this and other interesting sessions and weave them into some of the ideas surrounding the Healing Fractures workshop which map out a way to put identity formation into the curriculum and into the hands of students outside the narrow scope afforded by pre-defined notions of citizenship and/or consumerism, referred to in my presentation.

One of the most telling examples of the gap between people’s personal rationale and the “perception managed” public definitions in which they are enframed, were the quotes from Ms. Tania Saeed’s research on women in the UK wearing the full face-veil, such as: “I feel more empowered, I feel far more confident” and “It’s like a rebirth.”

None of the women in the survey perceived what they were doing as a political statement, but rather as a highly personal journey – as inconceivable and incredible as that may sound to the rest of the world.

But on the battlefield of meaning, just south of the English Channel, legally barring a woman from covering her face is constructed as setting her free.

Time to arm the peasants, Lev Vygotsky.


Follow for updates on this and related topics.

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Pair-Sharing; Ping-Pong with Derek the Nazi

Workshop debriefing: After looking into the overarching lesson aims of the inquiry exercise, here’s the nitty-gritty of the ubiquitous pair work.

Pairing students often comprise one of the stages of more complex group interaction, but also work brilliantly as a simple stand-alone prelude/follow-up to virtually any activity, as exemplified in the previous post featuring Sir Micheal Wilshaw.

This post also serves to deliver on my promise to discuss CL as a means to make complex project-based enquiry such as Mantle of the Expert less daunting to teachers fearing loss of classroom control (see original post Pandora’s Box).

Pair-share in the context of Cooperative Learning

First of all the notion that one is engaging in Cooperative Learning by letting students discuss in pairs is not a given. In my definition of structural CL, “A pre-structured group effort whose success depends on each specific member carrying out specific tasks at specific times,” one person talking at his partner for 3 minutes is not pre-structured, not a group effort and success certainly does not depend on members carrying out specific tasks.

Generally, one student will dominate the conversation and very timid students, regardless of varied partners, are likely to seize the opportunity to  not say anything, for the same reason they never put their hand up in open class. (In spite of  1-to-1 generally being a lot more conducive than 1-to-35).

Also, by micro-managing the interaction between partners, more subtle aims are achieved; various types of listening, questioning and thinking skills are brought to the fore, and one may embed different types of writing tasks, whether note-taking before, during or after the partner’s presentation, which could then be written out as a proper text and finally signed off.

Through-out the workshop, several forms of pair interaction were demonstrated, split into two basic CLIPs*:


If you read the instructions to Michael and Jakob’s class below, Ping-Pong-Pair should have some of the speed and energy of table tennis and is useful when producing ideas, recapping key points, honing skills that produce short answers, bouncing opinions or creating a controlled discussion:

All right, everybody. Turn to your shoulder-partners. Ping-Pong-Pairs, so stay concise and on-point, maximum 4 sentences per turn. Ready? … “Based on your current take on student-centred learning, assume you are the head of Ofsted and bounce some opinions back and forth”. Two minutes, go!

Here, the limit to the amount of sentences in each turn means the ball has to be passed back and forth with a certain degree of speed; this of course depending on the level of the class, the complexity of the material to be discussed, etc.

The simplest way of adding a writing element, is for students to pass a piece of paper back and forth as quickly as possible (which may also be used to create competition between teams). These can be incredibly basic – in Maths, multiplication table of X, “see how far you get in thirty seconds”; even with help from a superior partner, the less capable student still has to write out the 4×5=20, etc. Start every Maths lesson with 2 minutes of ping-pong-pairs. It’s time well spent.

In other subjects, it might be capital cities, names of romantic authors, opening lines to science fiction stories, families of animals, numbers, weekdays, months or special vocabulary in a foreign language,  the periodic table – listening in or picking up the written lists afterwards gives instant insight. Or reflection on own learning; “Ideas to make homework easier? One minute, go!” The pair/share discussed on the Religious Education/Philosophy for Children page is actually a Ping-Pong Pair.

Roleplaying Ping-Pong-Pairs

After watching the “immigrant rant” from American History X, participants did a Ping-Pong-Pair where one partner tries to talk Derek out of attacking the convenience store. This particular exercise entails “Derek” defeating all arguments with a counter-argument, regardless of conventional morals; the destructive “WHY?” in a world without cohesive narrative, chosen because this was one of the main themes of the workshop.

This video clip starts with the answer to the facilitator modelling Derek’s argument “All my friends have lost their jobs because of these Mexican border jumpers working under minimum wage” and giving a reply to the argument. Participants engage like race-horses coming out of the box:


Ping-Pong-Pairing with Derek the Nazi

(question modelling and staging instructions)

Timed Pair

In comparison Timed Pair is more calm, yet in many ways more demanding; the teacher presents a task, and in turns each partner gets an allotted timespan to present whatever it requires of findings, thoughts, opinions, ideas, solutions, before being presented with partners feedback. So going back to Michael’s example, he would have been given a chance to map out all his plans for Ofsted for two minutes, and then gotten two minutes of feedback. So teaching presentation as a ancillary skill forms a natural part class room activities, often several times in even a single lesson.

For the speaking partner, the benefit over Ping-Pong the more coherent and planned presentation, where quick thinking is required to formulate and connect key points within the time frame. For other students, filling out the time might be the challenge – a full two minutes demands more than the usual superficial answer to which many open class comments are restricted.

For the listener, the awareness of his following feedback task intensifies his listening and forces him into an ongoing analysis of the presentation to formulate questions and feedback. Note taking here is a definite option for some. A

As for social skills, attentive listening, constructive criticism (shame on you, Brenda, for making fun of Michael!), patience when partner does not understand point one is convinced are clear, helping to phrase and formulate without being intrusive, eye contact, body language, praising and thanking. All this is discussed in more detail in On the Subject of Social Skills.

Integrating with team and class interaction

Both of the above fit into any cross class and cross team information sharing situation, including open floor situations described in The Dancefloor is made of Lava and the Two-for-Tea visually described in The Teacher is a Ghost.

A generic question would be: “Share all the ideas your team has come up with so far…”



* CLIP: Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern

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Lefty child-centred teaching, indeed!

A response to the Telegraph article: Ofsted chief: we don’t want ‘lefty’ child-centred teachingwhere Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, says that 60s-style “child-centred’ teaching damaged generations of schoolchildren as he unveiled a major overhaul of the inspection system.

(Sir Michael’s original statements are in green)

In the Surreal Secondary School, Michael and Jakob oddly find themselves in a class doing a discovery exercise on the concept “Student-Centred Learning.”


surreal school

It’s Michael on the right

Students are seated in heterogeneous teams of four, mixing gender, ability and social background (the two girl opposite are Brenda and Marina). The morning starts with a pair-share:

Teacher: All right, everybody. Turn to your shoulder-partners. Ping-Pong-Pairs, so stay concise and on-point, maximum 4 sentences per turn. Ready? … “Based on your current take on student-centred learning, assume you are the head of Ofsted and bounce some opinions back and forth”. Two minutes, go!

Michael: Ok, I get to start! If you ask me, Ofsted  should root out inspectors who champion trendy teaching!  

Jakob: Trendy teaching…uh, is that a method I haven’t heard about…?

Michael: Very funny. I mean so-called “child-centred” learning. A characteristic of many classrooms in the 60s and 70s (…) I am part of a generation of people who experienced that sort of ideology which ruined the lives of generations of children at that time. You must agree, Jakob, given that sociopathic skills rant I read from you!

Jakob: I wrote that rant to point out that just leaving the students to their own devices is in fact not doing them any favour. You are now hijacking my story to attack whatever you perceive as “child-centred learning.” I mean, what is “child-centred” or “student-centred learning” to you?

Michael: It’s what lefty, hippy-types do – you know,  left-leaning progressive techniques in which children are left to work alone or in groups for long periods with little leadership from teachers. 

Jakob: Well, that just sounds like the disorganised group work to me, which is what you mean when you use the term “student-centred learning”. But if you want to be taken seriously as Head of Ofsted, you need to be precise about how you use these terms.

Michael: So, if you were Head of Ofsted, you’d just allow children to just sit and talk…?

Jakob: No, but if we hadn’t been allowed this conversation, we would not discover how differently we perceive the concept of student-centred learning, would we? You would have assumed anyone who disagreed with you was happy with total chaos in class. You’d make any further conversation impossible!

Michael: But us discussing the subject would not even be necessary if (whispering) …if the teacher would just read out the definition of student-centred learning to us from the board. This chatting is totally inefficient in comparison. In fact, on occasions, (…) pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. 

Brenda (interrupting): Sure, Michael, like that science lesson when you slept through Ms Picards 30-minute presentation and when you woke up you thought amino acid was something people did at Woodstock and accused her of being a communist!

Teacher (She’s been unobtrusively monitoring, you see): Brenda, your shoulder-partner is Rose. Stay with her.

Jakob: Sorry about that – I think Brenda wanted to point out I’m just saying we don’t all get the same same thing from the material, ok?

Michael: I just insist I want to see structured, teacher-led activities.  Here the teacher is just letting us mouth off opinions…

Jakob: Do you agree with the teacher?

Michael: What?

Jakob: Do you agree with our teacher about student-centred learning?

Michael: No, I don’t want her ‘’independent learning’’ in all lessons  - and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. 

Jakob: But if she just gave you her definition, you wouldn’t get a chance to voice your alternative opinion and discuss it with anyone, would you?

Michael: … Any lesson of hers I can think of,  I think it was unstructured, it wasn’t teacher led…

Teacher: Ok, shoulder-partners, your two minutes are up!

Michael: Aww…!

Teacher: Spend one minute recapping  your conversation to your front partner, and then we’ll move on to share the homework assignments.


… to be continued in “Lefty child-centred teaching#2″, where it transpires that Michael didn’t do his homework.


PS: For those following the workshop debriefing, you are not forgotten, but I couldn’t let that article go.

(And thanks for the notes, N. I’ll make all available and look at collaborative online notesharing and commentary.)


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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.

Also, a lot of finer points related to personality and social skills are brought to the fore and hitherto unseen strengths and weaknesses are put on display, sometimes surprising students themselves. Whoever uses CL disregards social skills at the peril of his class – BUT whoever applies teacher-centred learning disregards social skills at the peril of society at large. Big words, but I refer the sceptical reader to the previous post On the Subject of Social Skills.

So the hard work on social skills should not be an excuse to back away from CL. As we have seen in a previous post On the Subject of Social Skills, high attainment and social skills go hand in hand.

So here we will focus on the assessment and real-time feedback into the learning process of observations made possible through CL. At  the beginning of the lesson, the teacher’s role is that of “task setter.” As groups work on tasks, the teacher acts as a coach moving from group to group to provide students with on-going feedback and assessment of the group’s progress, but most of all to monitor the learning process.

This observation then may impact the direction of the lesson in progress or the focus or tempo of future lessons as issues are uncovered, ideas are presented and unforeseen difficulties arise.



As a rule of thumb, monitoring should be unobtrusive, as to avoid students becoming self-aware and skewing the observation. This might mean looking towards a group at the other end of the room while listening to the one in front of you. Also setting up the tables forming a semi-circle , sides facing the area of presentation (WB, IWB) not only gives everyone equal standing on the comfort scale (no-one has to crane 180 degrees to see the board) and keeps all students within earshot without a lot of roving around. However, for every class, it is a work-around.  In some situations, simply standing in the middle of the room as soon as students are set on their tasks will be fine.


unobtrusive monitoring

unobtrusive monitoring indeed


To ensure equal dispersal of attention, keep a rota list for each class. Attention during lesson are allocated to 2-3 specific students, sometimes sitting in teams for convenience though this is not always possible. Obviously, the content of the lesson also affects the choice of student to observe.  The key is to keep track. With three student per lesson and four lessons a week, you can churn through a class of twenty every two weeks, enough to keep abreast of developments.

Note also that one may choose CLIPs for individual groups which touch the area of learning you want to observe in specific students. When working on good character description in creative writing, but you want to check if students have made progress on attention and  giving recaps, give them a four minute Recap2Pass, where permission for the next person to speak is only given if a concise recap of what was said is accepted by the previous speaker. Question: “What’s your favourite character description and why is it you favourite?” Prepares the written work, but allows teacher to check specific skills on the go.

Real-time feed-back in class

Obviously, this is where a sound theoretical knowledge of CL comes in, so you know which areas of learning are facilitated by which CLIPs and with which tweaks. For examples of tweaks, check Newsletter #1Let’s say that two groups out of eight are struggling; send Two-for-Tea out to gather information from other teams, bring them back to recap new knowledge.

If there is a wide variety of the level of understanding of the subject matter, and you want to bring the struggling one’s up to speed without slowing the fast ones, let them Stop2Talk (check Newsletter #1 for details) and have them talk to partners across teams to share knowledge as prompted by your (clever) questions. This allows the quicker students to formalise their knowledge by explaining and phrasing it to suit the varying needs of his/her peers. A simple, generic (and clever) question might be: “Ask your partner which areas his group is struggling with at the moment. Find out how you can help.” A more specific one might be: “Explain the relationship of Henry VIII to the Church of England at the time it was founded and at the time of his death” or “What are the main functions of amino acids? Take turns.” Here,  taking notes is always good, as it supports debriefing once they return to their teams.

As for feed-back into following lessons, it no different from how you would respond if you had spotted problems through normal class teaching; the difference is that gathering intel via hands-up responses in class, compared to observing a lively, guided CL discussion, is akin to “looking through a glass, darkly.”

Assessment will be discussed in the following post Monitoring and Assessment. Stay tuned on twitter.




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Socio(pathic) Skills #3; Rebel without a cue

Workshop debriefing: The place of this video in the workshop is discussed in the previous post. I do however feel it deserves it’s own post, as it does call some basic assumptions about intelligence and skills into question.

Before watching this video clip, first ask yourself if you agree school should create students who are well-read, committed and personally courageous, inspiring, that they should posses initiative, historical/political insight, concern for their communities, oratory skills , be committed and personally courageous and able to master critical thinking,  to access and apply facts and statistics and  form independent opinions.


This video was the key to setting the stage for the ontology discussion. After watching it, participants got to role play Derek vs. school teacher. See related posts:  Socio(pathic) Skills #1 & #2

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The Order of Things #3

Workshop debriefing: The materials arranged in order of presentation and how they tie in with the objectives of the session:

STAGE 1: UK Education – past/present/(future?)

Objective: enquire into issues of the current system to arrive at systemic issues.


  1. Ibrahim Lawson Keynote #1 on the birth of Modernity and the chaotic fall of the grand narrative; sets the tone.
  2. Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms (selections); brings the dark side of utilitarian, mechanistic Modernity into the context of education
  3. 4 texts on the changes in the sixties (not used); if necessary to create a bridge from teacher-centred “old school” to sixties radical ideas of student-centred classrooms.
  4. Teacher talk: a personal experience; how the experimental classrooms of the seventies created children without boundaries.

Ken Robinson RSA industry

STAGE 2: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Objective: to discuss the purpose of education in late post-modernity society, now devoid of cohesive narratives.


  1. Film clip: American History X: Immigration rant; an extreme example of how depersonalised,** skills-driven, child-centred learning. (Before watching this video clip, first ask yourself if you agree school should create students who are well-read, committed and personally courageous, inspiring, posses initiative, historical/political insight, concern for his/her community, oratory skills, be committed and personally courageous and be able to apply knowledge, critical thinking,  to access and apply facts and statistics and  form independent opinions).
  2. Film clip: The Last Visible Dog, cutting just before the white light (what the author of Trivium 21C  calls the “destructive” why*)


STAGE 3: Muslim education: History and Purpose

Objective: to discover Islam’s educational ethos and history, especially it’s focus on character and community building over and above, but not devoid from skills and compare this with the above issues


  1. Ibrahim Lawson Keynote #3 on approaching Islam thoughtfully; asks for a re-thinking of autopilot presumptions that have landed us all in the current mess.
  2. Online presentation: Dr. Amjad Hussein on Islamic History, 21.09.13. Read transcript created as a Jigsaw Puzzle alternative to the video (Video copyrighted - follow for updates on this issue). At each key juncture in the presentation, students would get a chance to process the information in the teams, but now naturally drawing parallels to the foregoing critique of the current systems impersonal and morally void focus on attainment.
  3. The Norwich Academy School curriculum as presented to the DfE by the Muslim community of Norwich; a view as promised “into the boiler room of contemporary Muslim educationalists” this gives a practical example of some of these ideals brought to life in a uniquely English setting.

STAGE 4: Who are you? – crisis of identity, crisis of ontology

Objective: to discover epistomology and ontology are the levels we need to work on first,  and that Muslims have something to offer here by having that overarching narrative that ties all aspects of man together (see link to Amjad’s material above).


  1. Ibrahim Lawson Keynote #4 on the goal of philosophy, or thinking about thinking by introducing the fact that European educational history could easily have gone down a very different path, exemplified by Pestalozzi and Comenius.
  2. Film clip: The Last Visible Dog, cutting just after the white light beyond the whys; prepares for a thinking exercise advising Mr Gove on where the future of UK education lies; hopefully with discovering a higher purpose than the A-C band of GCSEs! (some of these recommendations will be published here later).
  3. Film clip: The Last Visible Dog, cutting just after “Papa, it’s us!”; bringing it full circle and closing the workshop on a positive note.

teacher's note

Looking at the objectives versus actual outcome as students formulated their combined knowledge to map out the future of UK education: while all of the teams seized on the various aspects of Islamic education, none of the teams actually grabbed the final presentation on ontology as crucial to generate narratives that would underpin the character building and community ethos. As one of the four objectives I had decided I wanted them to “discover”, this forms an interesting angle to the discussion of teacher as a managing manipulator vs. the teacher as an interactive facilitator –   I am planning to close this series of workshop debriefing with the ambiguously titled post “Teacher Taught a Lesson”. It’s absolute evidence that the teacher is in fact always and forever learning and no amount of management or technique will change that.


*)  “…a certain amount of questioning can cause most things to collapse under the weight of absurdity – as any parent will know when they try to answer every ‘why’ thrown at them by a curious child in their indefatigable and destructive search for meaning.”

- Martin Robinson,  Trivium 21C  p. 24.(Read this book – available on Kindle)

**) One of the less obvious points in the fill is that the moment “education” steps in, it is not in the form of the state school system, but a single history teacher who actually gives enough of a toss to personally step up and draw a line in a real and human encounter, where there is clarity about who is the child and who is the adult with life experience.

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Another brief interlude: What teachers should actually be doing in the student-centred classroom

“Unobtrusive monitoring” – indeed!

what teachers actually do in the student-centred classroom

As pointed out in the workshop, the continuous discussions which form the backbone of Cooperative Learning present a unique opportunity to follow thought processes as they unfurl. In a well-oiled classroom, in theory, all the teacher needs to do is to set them of and sit back and listen in.

One, this means that the assessment of the individual student is much more accurate and detailed than the usual presentation of a finished result.

Two, it means you can catch subject-related misunderstandings or problems before they fester. (No, the Indians in “The Last Mohican” aren’t from the Subcontintent, Team 2!)

Three, it’s a perfect arena to observe social skills in action. (Can Bob wait for his turn? Can Katie politely ask him to be quiet? Who in the team is ready to support his/her mates?).

Four, and perhaps most importantly, it allows two-way real-time feedback, as any points of interest, exiting angles and unforseen connections may be picked up on and suddenly send both teacher and students for a autonomous stroll out of the fixed lesson plan.

A trick is to create a rota of students to focus on; and then look at another team while you are listening to not disturb with you presence. Unobtrusive. Moms the word.

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