Task Construction for Group/Pair Work

While thinking about my previous post, I began to consider how I could modify tasks I had set in the past to promote the use of discussion and higher-order thinking skills as well as pupil involvement based on their range of strengths.

For example, not so long ago, my children were researching adaptation.  They were in mixed ability groups and each member had a role that changed each session that they worked on the project.  The aim of the project was to research an animal of their choosing and how it was adapted to their environment.  They then had to collate their research from a range of sources and produce a presentation – they could choose within a range of options how to present their work.  The options included a range of ICT choices or a written report.

It seems so simple now but had I changed the task question for example: Would animal ‘x’ survive in environment ‘y’ (somewhere it does not currently live), and if it wouldn’t how would it need to evolve/change to be able to survive?  The children would still need to conduct the same research to find out about how the animal they chose was adapted to its existing environment but the structure of the question would have facilitated higher-order thinking and discussion within the group.  As it is an open-ended question with no real concrete answers (as there may be some elements of the animal that would cope but others that wouldn’t) it lends itself to more children being able to have a reasoned opinion rather than solely using a range of sources to find facts and information about something.

In terms of task presentation, individuals could have still gone on to do what they did but perhaps each group could have been involved in preparing some form of pre-defined task (different for each group) that demonstrated their understanding AND that involved for example: construction, or art, or music etc.  Again, a child who may be highly literate may be weaker when it comes to a construction task so the project as a whole allows for a distribution and understanding of a range of expertise.  If children have the opportunity to take part in a range of different tasks to show their learning and understanding over several days, again you will be allowing more and more children to shine and support one another according to their various strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, with anything, this would require modelling and guidance in the lead up and incorporation of independent group work but what a great learning experience for our pupils if they truly understood group work in a way that reflected everybody’s strengths and encompassed Einstein’s quote in my previous post.

I’d love to hear other examples from people about how they might re-design a task they’ve set in the past to incorporate higher-order thinking, promote discussion and encompass the idea that task completion relies on everybody’s strengths.

Involving EVERYBODY in group work

While trying to write a paper on some research I undertook recently, two things happened on the same day which resulted in this rather impromptu blog post.  As I was growing more interested by what I was reading and thinking about how I could incorporate it into my own practice, I thought… where can I jot this down?  I suddenly remembered, that’s what the blog was for!

So here it is…

Every now and then someone posts the following quote, which I happened to see today, on their wall on facebook:

       Everyone is a genius.

             But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its

whole life believing that it is stupid.

Albert Einstein

Later the same day I also read a journal article related to inclusive group work and the messages in both the article and the quote are almost identical.  This article (Cohen, E.G., Lotan, R.A., Scarloss, B.A. & Arellano, A.R. [1994] Complex instruction: Equity in cooperative learning classrooms.  Theory Into Practice, 38, 80-86) and other articles/books by the same authors are well worth a read if you have access to them.

The article itself is about the use of an instructional approach to teaching called Complex Instruction (CI).  In very brief terms, CI supports the use of group work and helps overcome issues that many teachers (including myself) will have experienced in the past and may even stop us using group work for certain activities.  Issues mainly surround the idea of everybody not taking an equal part in the group be it through self-exclusion or exclusion by others and include:

  • Not being able to read/write at the level of the rest of the group.
  • Having a first language that is different from the instructional language.
  • Talkers talking to much.
  • Being excluded for social reasons.
    And so on…

The approach assigns roles to individuals in the group for example: ‘recorder’, ‘materials manager’ etc.  (This will be familiar to many teachers who use such strategies already).  This will obviously go some way to making sure others are involved but CI goes much deeper than this.  The main part comes from the construction of the task and the attitudes reflected by the teacher with regards to recognising others’ strengths.  The authors of the article refer to this as ‘the multiple-abilities treatment’ and before tasks are started, the teacher would refer to the range of abilities needed to complete each of the various tasks and how they are relevant and the idea that no one person has all the strengths needed to complete the task but that everybody will have something they can bring.  Another important factor they discuss is ‘assigning competence’ for example if an individual (particularly those who might normally be excluded for whatever reason) is not being listened to despite their valid opinions, we, as teachers need to intervene and reiterate the point the child was making showing the rest of the group the relevance and importance of it to the task.  The tasks that the children undertake are open tasks (i.e. there is no fixed or definite answer which therefore facilitates discussion) and children may be expected to discuss and create something to present (that uses a variety of skills and abilities).  The something to present may be different for each group and require different skills from the other tasks and children would get to complete several tasks (all related to a central topic) over several sessions.  In terms of individual accountability, as well as group production, children are then expected to produce their own individual report on a separate occasion about the task in addition to the group task.

So hopefully you can now see the connection I made between CI and the Einstein quote. 

Perhaps something I have written has triggered some of your own thoughts about how you could use this in your own classroom. 

If you are already doing something similar, I’d love to hear about it so feel free to leave a comment below.


In my next blog post (coming soon), I give a couple of example ways that I have been thinking about to promote discussion in pairs or groups in my class and how I think that tweaking the task slightly could have resulted in greater engagement, participation from more students (particularly those who may be considered lower ability) and the use of much more higher order thinking.


The Pros and Cons of Completing your Masters

Firstly, apologies for not posting for an exceptionally long time.  Hopefully the posts will increase in frequency now I have a bit more time on my hands.

I have spent the last three years completing my Masters while working full time and having submitted my thesis a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was a good time to reflect on the experience.

Masters: pros and cons

A bit of advice:
– Make sure you have a supportive group of friends and family around you.  You’ll definitely need them.  For the last three months my partner has literally done everything for me while I’ve been slaving away at the computer.
– Don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to proofread your work!
– Have a group of colleagues that you can sound ideas off, read your work and act as a way for you to reflect critically on what you are doing.
– Try to stay in one place.  In the final year and a half of my Masters I managed to move to the other side of the world, then about a year later moved to the other end of the country and in that time worked in 3 different schools due to the constant moving.  This does not help with time management issues! 

So, would I recommend it? 
Yes I would, I think it adds something a little extra to teacher inquiry and for me, made a much more meaningful impact on my teaching than anything I had done previously.

Am I going to do more? 
I have been told (by my partner) in no uncertain terms that I’m never doing anything like this again.  Although I think he knows deep down that I probably will anyway, I just can’t help myself.  However, I will be enjoying a bit of time out from the studies for a while. 

What’s next? 
I plan to write several posts about what my research was about and my findings.  I will be aiming to get my work published at some point.

Have you ever done any post-grad studies?  What were/are your experiences?

Are you interested in pursuing further qualifications?

Have you done any other forms of really worthwhile PD?

The Postcard Project

Want to be involved in the Postcard Project?  It’s simple and fun.  Read on to find out more!!!

Although blogging is great, there’s something quite nice about good old fashioned snail mail, in particular, receiving postcards.  So, in the spirit of developing global connections and getting to know a bit more about other peoples cities/countries etc. I propose  




Image Attribute: Postcard JBeach Licensed Under: NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic  

Here’s what you have to do:
– Leave a message on this post to show you’re interested and so we can exchange school addresses.
– Find a postcard that represents something iconic from your country or even better, from your city.
– Write on the back of the postcard.  This could be anything you like e.g. about your class, about your country or the sorts of things you did for Christmas etc. etc.
– Pop on our address and send it to us.
– You will also recieve a postcard from us.

This can be something you just do with this class or if lots of people are interested, I’ll set up a google doc with various addresses for people that want to take part and larger scale exchanges can take place.

What’s great about this project is the age doesn’t matter – primary or secondary/high-school are both welcome.  What’s more, it provides a real purpose for writing.

Be as involved as you like.  Write 1 postcard or lots.  Do it once in the year or ongoing throughout the year.  The choice is yours.

We look forward to receiving your postcards!

When group work isn’t group work!

I was recently reading an article related to formative assessment by Paul Black and in it, it talked about pupils often working IN groups but not AS groups.  This is an interesting (but not new concept) that I think needs to be looked at by more of us. Now when I talk about group work here, indulge me and consider any combination with more than one participant (and I use the term participant lightly).

 Ask yourself honestly, when you ask your kids to get into pairs or groups, how often do they work really well together, with everybody contributing and everybody feeling valued and being able to share their strengths.  I would argue that unless you have spent a lot of time specifically teaching these skills, rather than just expecting your kids to know how to work in pairs or groups a lot of our kids just won’t be geared up to doing this effectively.  As part of my masters research on formative assessment, I’ve focused on developing classroom dialogue which involved talk partners.  My kids became excellent at working in pairs and listening to each others ideas and building on or adapting these and so on.  However, once you added an extra person into the mix, for several of the groups the whole thing fell apart.  I just hadn’t spent the time looking at working effectively as a team, what this looks like and why it’s necessary.  Once the dialogue was opened up to the kids about how they could work more effectively together, things started to improve but I have to say, I still didn’t go far enough with this.

More recently, I have been doing supply/relief work for various reasons including moving to a new place and having surgery on my rather broken arm.  What I’ve noticed when I go into classes and you ask people to work in pairs for example is that the chidlren seem to think that working in pairs means sharing the resources available (i.e. using them one at a time) but other than that, no further interaction is required.  The example I’m specifically thinking of (although there have been more) is when I was working with a maths group and I had asked them to get a mini-whiteboard between two of them and use it to solve the problem together.  What then ensued was a wonderful demonstration of manners, turn taking and patience but absolutely no collaboration.  One individual solved one problem, rubbed it out then handed the equipment over for the next person to do the next problem.  I’m not even sure a single word was spoken between the pairs!

So, my mission when I get my new class in January is to focus on both pair and group work from day one and really develop this.  I think it’s so crucial to set this learning environment up early particularly as research suggests that working effectively in groups produces better learning than if a child is just working on something by themselves.  Long gone are the days where chidlren sat in silence and worked quitely at their desks on their own.  The era of collaboration has arrived and new technology, effective formative assessment and numerous other strategies demand it.  So, it is our responsibiltiy to get it right for our kids and invest the time in teaching and reflecting on effective pair and group work and the reasons for it.

I found this video on YouTube – it’s very clever and I think it’s a great example of what team work can achieve and the fact that in order to achieve this, these people would have had to have had a shared goal, all would have had to have participated and it could not be achieved if they had all worked on the same thing individually.  It would be an interesting one to show to start a discussion with kids about perhaps why this works so effectively (not even mentioning team work – let them figure it out).

Do you have any success stories with group work?
How have you embedded it within your class?
What have you found are the benefits of it?
Any funny stories about when a group isn’t a group?

Connecting Children: Brightening Futures

I have just launched an interest page for a project I will be undertaking between May and June of 2011.  The project will involve global collaboration among classes, sharing learning and learning from each other, rich experiences in cultural diversity and a shared goal of making a difference for those who need it most.

If you would like to know more about this project or take part, read more about it here (or just click on the relevant page in this blog).  You can also find me on twitter @seleakey.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Research with Younger Kids

So, I’ve got a Year 2 class next year and the first thing I thought was, how on earth am I going to get these young kids to do something like research and really teach them the skills.  There are so many websites out there and using something like google just isn’t appropriate, it’s a minefield of information.  What I need is something much more manageable.

As I was browsing through the blogs of other classes from the edublogs blog list, for classes we could link up with next year, I came across The Tillis Tribune Blog and while browsing through their posts I noticed a post about custom search engines so had a read and clicked on some of the links and then tried one out myself.  Basically it’s a google search engine but you’ve specified which websites can be accessed so when key words are typed in, the only websites that appear will be ones that you have pre-specified.  Genius!  Google, you’ve done it again.

So here’s what I liked about it:
– It’s quick and easy to use.
– You (the teacher) find some sites that are suitable for your class (age, reading ability etc) and type them in where it tells you to when you’re creating your custom search engine. This is great because it means that your kids can learn the basics like key word searches and using the find tool to go straight to relevant sections of the text but you know they’re not going to have to trawl through tons of useless sites.  Once they’ve mastered the basics it’ll make something like the real google easier to use.
– Although you are specifying which sites they use, they still have to go through the key word process to find the ones that are relevant so in my opinion it’s better than just posting a link to a bunch of websites that you think might be useful.
– You can then either post a fixed link (e.g. on a side bar of a blog to the search engine e.g. Maori Culture Search Engine) or add the search engine within a blog post as I did (look at the bottom of this post).  The one within a blog post looks slightly more attractive than the page created when you click on the link but I guess that doesn’t really matter.

The problems:
– You have to find suitable websites first (but I guess most people do this anyway as part of their preparation).
– Finding websites with good content suitable for young kids (i.e. visually and at a suitable reading level) is surprisingly difficult so you might be quite limited or need to make sure there’s at least one very able reader in each group.  At least they will be sites you have chosen though.  You can go back and edit your search engine at any time so if someone recommends a site or you find a new one, you can always add it in.

So, all in all, I think it’s great and this is going to make researching with these young kids much easier than I had anticipated.  There are obviously numerous other skills in research and a suitable search engine is just the tip of the iceberg but at least I’m getting somewhere.

What are your experiences with inquiry/research with younger kids?

Have you got any advice that might be useful?



Jumping on the Technology Bandwagon

I’m sure this has been posted on numerous blogs before but I was watching a video about something else today and it reminded me of the clip below which I saw at an ICT cluster day.  I think Susie Vesper showed it as part of her talk.  Anyway, with all the blog posts and tweets and so on that constantly mention technology and its use, this video reminded me of how sometimes we are using new technology in old or pointless ways.

Now, be honest, how many of you have done something where you used fancy technology but really didn’t need to or didn’t use it properly. I can remember quite recently doing something on fractions with my kids and getting them to use garageband, keynote and digital cameras to produce a movie that explained finding fractions of amounts. So, the learning intention was about understanding how to find fractions of amounts and admittedly, pretty much all of them are now great at doing this and really understand it so the dialogue that went around creating the movies and the process they went through did help this. However, I definitely overcomplicated things. I could have done this much more easily using something like Voicethread, it would have been easier, required less equipment, caused fewer technology issues and have been quicker; leaving more time for other learning. The kids had a great time using all the various bits of tech equipment but this perhaps was not the project to use it with.

The other point I’d like to add here is that sometimes we use a piece of technology that adds nothing to the learning objective itself except to give it an audience e.g. being able to then put it on a blog which may help further the learning compared to not being able to do this as it gives it a wider audience.  Others can comment on the learning and this may help the kids reflect on what they could do differently or misunderstood.

So, I think whenever we reach for that all singing, all dancing piece of new technology that we’re desperate to use (or show our kids can use) we need to ask ourselves: What am I trying to get my kids to learn?  Why have I chosen this technology to aid the learning?  Is this piece of equipment going to help that learning more than doing it another way?  And perhaps, is this the simplest way?

A final point, which I’m sure someone will bring up.  Sometimes, I agree, you want children to learn how to use a piece of equipment in which case, that is the learning objective and you can go for gold (as long as you’re thinking about what it is exactly they are going to need that technology for in the future).

Have you been drawn onto the technology bandwagon and used a piece of technology when it really wasn’t needed?

What do you ask yourself (or your kids) before you decide on what tools they’ll use as an aid to learning?

Distance Marking Part 2: The quandary from above, below and sideways.

My need for completeness in a rather obsessive compulsive way has meant that I have spent many a long night slaving over books, marking them ready for the next day and in the past, and even occasionally now, this has meant marking every single book, in detail, when often the children will not look at the marking let alone respond to it.  Time and time again, I find myself (and others) asking, is that really necessary?  On one occasion recently, a colleague having noticed that I was nearly the last in school yet again and found me marking yet more books, said, “are the children actually going to look at that or do anything with it?”  In my defense, I was doing it for my own personal knowledge gain because I wanted to see how well the children had grasped what we had been learning about and where they were having difficulty so I could modify the lesson for the following day.  However, this person had a point, I was doing an in depth mark of something that the children themselves were not actually going to look at.  So I thought I’d dedicate this post to the dilemmas around marking, who it’s really all for and the types of marking.

Who’s it for?
Below: The Children
(Children, please don’t take offense to being referred to as below, it is not a status thing, merely a size thing!)
Obviously, anything we do in teaching must have the children in mind, so whether we are marking at a distance or with the children or whether it’s to inform our planning or for them to act upon, the primary question I think we need to be asking ourselves is how is what I’m doing going to benefit the children.  If the time and effort you are exerting is not benefiting the children then what’s the point, you’re better off either doing something that will benefit them or perhaps just relaxing – a happy, relaxed teacher is surely preferable to one that has had little sleep and has a bit of a short temper!

Sideways: Yourself and colleagues
Marking work obviously helps you inform your planning and therefore benefits the children (as stated above) it also helps you to reflect on whether your teaching was successful or not, if not, then a bit of reflectivity is perhaps required.  It also helps when discussing areas of concern with colleagues.

Above: Advanced Skills Teachers
I was fortunate enough to work with a fantastic advanced skills teacher (AST), who was considered a bit of a legend within the local authority, in my first year of teaching who told me that there was no point in marking every single book every day let alone in detail, you need to pick the groups/books you are going to mark and what you’re going to do with them carefully.  I seem to have successfully ignored this advice for most of my career for two reasons: the first being that as I have already said, I find it hard to just do part of something; and secondly due to the powers above (see Further Above section).

Further above: Management, Local Authority and OFSTED!!!
For those Kiwis among you, and readers from other countries, Ofsted is the equivalent of ERO or other inspection body (although a lot more scary!)
Books get taken in by management to check your marking which is fine, I don’t generally have a problem with this, but I wonder how often it leads to marking for the sake of marking rather than marking for the benefit of the child.  And here’s the clincher, when you know that you are doing it for no other reason than to tick a box, when you are told to mark something from months ago that hasn’t been marked because Ofsted or the Local Authority are coming.  Even when it’s work that you’ve been through in class, you are still expected to distance mark it.  At this point you really need to be asking yourself – What’s the point and who’s this for?  Now, in the incidence that this occured in, I could have quite happily defended to any Ofsted or LA inspector the reason why a certain piece of work was not marked in a book (the possibilities for this are endless) however, as talking to an actual human being and asking them about their marking practices is not really within the confines of an inspection, it apparently makes more sense to waste my time marking something a child is certainly never going to look at again as opposed to putting my effort into planning or preparing something that we are actually doing now and will benefit the child.  You can just imagine the scenario below:

No work today!





How do you cope with the marking workload, what strategies do you use?
Have you ever been asked/expected to mark excessively for no apparant purpose?  What did you do?

Distance Marking Part 1: The types of marking

I have written this post in two parts so it’s not too much at once and will allow you to choose to read either or both depending on the relevance/interest to you.

First to clarify: by distance marking, I mean marking that you do it away from the children so, it is done by the class teacher and not within class time (however it may be revisited during subsequent class time).

Types of Marking:
Close the gap/Feedforward
This is quite possibly the most useful type of marking for the student whereby the teacher marks the work and offers feedback as to what the pupil has done well and what they need to do to move to the next step.  This is often accompanied by some sort of follow up activity based on the work already completed that pupils need to do so for example, it could be looking again at a maths problem that you got wrong with the area of error highlighted, or upgrading a sentence to better meet the objective and so on.
– It is probably the most effective type of teacher marking and will make the most impact on pupils reaching their next step.
– Your effort in marking is responded to so it was worth spending the time and effort doing it.
– It’s a better way (in my opinion) to get to the next step compared to say, teaching the errors at a whole class level and then having another go.  The latter obviously has its place and helps inform future teaching but the former is more personailsed and can be acted on immediately by the pupil.
– You, as a teacher have a thorough understanding of where that child is and are therefore in a much better position to plan activites to support their needs.
– It takes forever!  To overcome this, people have often suggested just doing a group at a time with this type of marking and perhaps going through it with them during a guided session.
– I’ve often fallen into the trap of doing the deep mark and then finding I don’t have enough time for the kids to go through it therefore rendering it pointless! To overcome this, I guess you just have to make sure you are only doing it when you are 100% sure you have got time for the children to review it.

 Two Stars and a Wish (or variations of this):
Basically this involves giving two positive points (related to the success criteria of course) and one point for improvement.  Although this seems similar to close the gap marking, in my mind or in my marking, the difference is that children must read the comments but don’t necessarily make an immediate improvement on it, it’s something to look back on before completing the next piece of similar work to remind them of what they needed to focus on.
– Like close the gap marking, it helps children identify the next steps in their learning.
– It is personalised.
– It helps children to understand this reflective process (which will later aid them when doing their own peer/self-assessment).
– You, as a teacher have a thorough understanding of where that child is and are therefore in a much better position to plan activites to support their needs.
– It takes about as long as close the gap marking.
– As the ‘acting upon the marking’ part is not necessarily immediate, the delay between reading it the first time and implementing it in a subsequent piece of work (even after re-reading) may be too long for some children and they may have lost track of what they had done previously and how they could improve it.

Quick tick/basic comments:
By this I literally mean putting either ticks or crosses or some form of basic comment such as good etc.
– Gives you, as the teacher, a quick overview of areas that children found easy or had misconceptions about and allows you to inform future planning.
– It’s quick.
– It doesn’t offer much personalisation for the child and they, as an individual can’t really act on it.
– Do comments such as good, almost, good try etc. benefit/help the child in any way or are they just there to show that you’ve marked/seen the work?

Not even looking at the work after the lesson.  I would never have dreamed of leaving work completely blank in the past however since moving to New Zealand, I have noticed that a lot of teachers here leave a lot of work completely unmarked.  Now before anyone gets on the defensive, I completely understand this strategy for example if the work has been assessed within class or other such similar reasons.  However, work is also left having never been revisited in class or marked at a distance.
– It takes no time at all!!!
– It doesn’t offer the teacher or pupil any information about what they can do and where they need to go next.