The Learning Loop

For last few years we (the English faculty) have been teaching our GCSE course over 3 years. I made the decision this time last year to begin our three year programme of study with a scheme of learning which would encapsulate everything I believe education should be about. I had recently had some training on the impact of intrinsic motivation & growth mindsets and wanted to see if this was something we could foster in our learners. The other rationale (or perhaps, excuse is a better word) was to introduce the skills needed to successfully navigate the new GCSE course. We wanted students be be as prepared for the rigours of Controlled Assessment as possible and that would require independence, resilience, problem solving, creativity etc.

Sound ambitious? Well, if you aim at the bull’s eye you’ll probably hit the board!

Of course, none of this would be at all possible without being surrounded by a team of energetic, passionate educators who were prepared to take the leap of faith all this required. I sat down with our AST to plan it all out and the rag bad of stuff we wanted to cover included: Critical Skills (of course!), the PLTS, Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets, the valuing of process as well as product and the concept of “messy” learning. The other decision I made was that this shouldn’t be subject specific and was not meant to be “Englishy”. This felt like a bit of risk – what would happen if we spent 6 weeks not teaching punctuation and sentence structure? Would their literacy skills survive? After some debate, I pressed ahead with the concession that some members of the team could adapt the scheme to include some English if they felt it appropriate and necessary. The focus though had to be on HOW students were learning and not WHAT they were learning. This valuing of the process of learning is, I think, especially important in out product (exams) obsessed education system.

We began by asking students to self assess where they were with the PLTS using this simplified form:

PLTS self assessment tool

PLTS self assessment tool

We wanted to make sure that students knew the strategies/techniques we were using with them and so it was important to teach them explicitly. With this in mind, we next taught them about fixed and growth mindsets and explained about the need to praise effort not ability and the importance of focussing on the process not the product to encourage intrinsic motivation. We gave them a test which revealed their views on whether people’s intelligence and personality could change – this let us – and them – know what sort of mindset they were starting out with.

Another important strand was the idea of observing learning in order to have ‘quality learning conversations’. To make sure this could happen, it was crucial to be able to take a step back from students’ learning and get them to reflect on our observations – great practice is to use Post-its to note down  observations for later discussions and digital cameras to take quick snaps – we need to give students the freedom to fail.

As always, I wanted students to have the opportunity to be learning spies which gives them the responsibility for observing learning and frees you up to reflect on what’s going on in the classroom and to be able to offer quality feedback as and when you spot an opportunity. I also wanted to explicitly teach dispositions – whilst we were focussing on skills, we also needed to be teaching students about the dispositions needed to exemplify a skill. E.g. teamwork is a skill but what do you have to be like to be good a team worker?

Over the term, students were given a series of Apprentice style challenges, using the Critical Skills format, with a team ‘winning’ each week’s challenge. To introduce this way of working, we started by giving students a Murder Mystery challenge. The idea here was to try to make students completely responsible for their learning and to ensure that they all participated effectively. To do this, we needed to take a number of risks.

Firstly, we decided to give students minimal information – the only ‘rules’ they were given were that they couldn’t leave the room and that they couldn’t do anything dangerous. Everything else was up to them. It was vital that teachers did not get bogged down by answering questions – they needed to be free to observe what was happening. In order to cope with the inevitable needy students who absolutely had to ask a question, we gave each student a question token and told them that was the only question they could ask for the next 3 lessons. Interestingly, there was was brisk business which some students ‘buying’ extra questions from less dependent classmates. One useful strategy to get students to think for themselves was to show them the following YouTube clip:

Secondly, we needed to give them the option to fail. Deliberately, there was no “answer” to the mystery – it was designed to be an impossible task. This frustrated the hell out of some students (and some teachers) but the focus was to reflect on the fact that this was all about valuing the process of working together.


One tweak on the normal Critical Skills roles was that students were made Detectives, Forensic Investigators, Medical Examiners and Prosecutors. However, they were given complete freedom as to who they would work with. Some realised quite quickly that the different roles had access to different information and that it would make sense to pool resources and become a team. This was all part of the process – early on, many students grouped themselves badly and then rearrange themselves as the challenge progressed. One important rule here was that no one should be excluded. I explained this and then left the room for a minute – if anyone was unhappy when I returned, I made them do it again.

20 minutes into the murder mystery challenge

20 minutes into the murder mystery challenge

As students were trying to make sense of the (misleading) information they’d been given, teachers had the opportunity to take start taking notes on what they saw and heard as well as taking photos. Observations had to be factual e.g. I heard Jason say “…”, or, I saw you looking under the desk. We really tried not to interpret our observations (this is very difficult) and get students to reflect on them later in the lesson. Towards the end of the first lesson, students were asked to reflect on the skills they’d used and given the choice of writing a reflection log or recording their thoughts on a dictaphone.


After discovering that there wasn’t a right answer, learners were asked to consider why we did it – what was the point? We got them to revisit their PLTS self assessment to see if they had changed their minds about where they were with any of the skills areas, but more importantly, I wanted to how they felt about the process. Needless to say, the fixed mindsets ranged from frustrated to furious – what is the point of doing a task if there is no ‘right’ answer? The growth mindsets, however, quickly realised that they had actually learnt a lot and were able to see how the experience could be applied in the future.


Over the course of the next 3 weeks, students were given a series of Apprentice style challenges to complete. The purpose was to get them used to working together in Critical Skills groups and to give them repeated opportunities to reflect on how their skills and dispositions were developing. This is why we eventually called the scheme The Learning Loop. Each week followed the same format – 2 lessons to ‘do the work’, 1 lesson to pitch and 1 lesson to reflect on the process. Each challenge had a winning group and the Reflection Point lesson allowed students to consider how it felt to be either a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’ and how this related to their mindsets. These ‘loops’ of learning allowed us to reinforce our formative assessment as the students would essentially repeat a similar task the following week with clear and focussed targets on how they could improve.

We experimented with several different ways of forming teams including 100% student choice, 100% teacher choice and combinations of the two. Students were given the Belbin test so that they had access to information about themselves and each other which would enable them to organise themselves into teams with a mix of roles. According to the team roles theory of Dr. Meredith Belbin, there are nine different team roles. These roles can be functional, organisational, or personal. Functional teams should consist of different team roles, depending on the specific goals the team wants to achieve. A team that does not have the ideal composition may run into problems. For example, a team consisting of only creative individuals will generate many ideas, but none of them will be implemented. A team consisting of only specialists may lose sight of the big picture. A team will perform better if it is aware of the different roles required to reach a specific goal and is able to include those roles within the team.

One important consideration was who got to be Team leaders. These individuals would be given the responsibility of allocating roles & responsibilities amongst their team and were vital for the success of the team they worked with. If we allowed the most popular students to be ‘elected’ what would happen? In the end I used the Belbin test results to determine who would make effective team leaders, but should I have allowed the students more freedom?

This information fed neatly into the standard Critical Skills roles: teams could include a resources manager, a time keeper, an ideas generator, a quality checker etc. The important thing was that each member of the team had to have a specific area of responsibility so that their performance could be assessed. There were clear and differentiated success criteria for each of the challenges and the winning team was the one who did the best job of meeting these criteria. But who would judge this?

Before the first lesson of each challenge, learning spies were selected. Their role was to act like Nick and Margaret in The Apprentice. They were given their own Learning Spies’ Challenge sheet as well as an Observing Learning pro forma to record their observations. They were be attached to a particular teams for the duration of a lesson but were actually their own team. After they had fed back their observations to the teams they had been working with, they had to meet to discuss the progress of the rest of the class and how they felt about their task. Almost universally the spies loved their job although some did express frustration at not being part of the challenges.

A learning spy in action

A learning spy in action

At the end of the six week term, the plan was for students to feed back to an invited audience on what and how they had learnt. What they had to say was really articulate and crucially, some of the students we’d identified as ‘fixed’ early on had started to show signs of becoming more ‘growth’. Even though the end of unit ‘show’ ended up being cancelled at the last minute, the skills and dispositions for effective collaborative work were firmly in place and students’ resilience and independence were way more developed compared to the beginning of the year. This coming year the show will happen now that I have got my head around the vagueries of hall booking and caretaker liaison!

The question I’ve been asked more than any other is, yes, all very well, but what’s the impact?

Well, Controlled Assessment results in Year 9 show that most students are meeting or exceeding target grades and this is of course a good thing. But for me it is far more important that these students have been given a toolkit which they can apply to all sorts of different situations. I’m constantly being told how so-and-so mentioned in the DT/PE/Maths lesson, “Oh yeah, this is like that stuff we did in English.” and then applying their skills in new and interesting ways. Ideally this will have implications beyond school and I like to think that in some small way we might have made a difference to their life chances. Who knows? I do know, however, that whether they loved it or found it intensely uncomfortable, they all still remember the experience and often refer to ‘mindsets’ or ‘PLTS’ in lessons.

Anyway, we’ve all learned from our mistakes and grown as a result. And we’re doing it again in September 2011.


5 thoughts on “The Learning Loop

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