The Challenging Learning Process in action
“We had gotten to a place where we just couldn’t work any harder.” This quote from a teacher at Highweek Elementary in Devon, England captures the sentiment of educators the world over. Anywhere you go, you are likely to find educators who are hard at work attempting to create the best possible learning environment for their students. The education crisis we find ourselves in at the moment has not been created as a result of educators who don’t care or who are not putting forth their best effort. They are doing what they know and understand, and they are working very hard at it by adding more and more to their plates in an effort to create positive change. What the Challenging Learning Process is doing for schools around the world is creating systems and frameworks for change that help communities to narrow their focus and reduce fatigue on the teachers by maximizing their efforts.
Last week, I was like a kid in a candy shop as I explored three schools in England that have been engaged in long term work with Challenging learning. I am now more encouraged than ever that, with the support of Challenging Learning, ALL schools can engage in this transformation with GRAND results while not taxing the educators. Through observation and dialogue with staff and students, I was able to identify some common threads that, when weaved together, build a learning culture capable of producing a positive impact on student learning. While each school was unique, the basic tenets that have driven the work of Challenging Learning since its inception were clearly present. It is this consistency and focus that contributes to the long-term success of the Challenging Learning Process and the option to network participating schools as they work to build their own capacity.
I will try to capture in words and pictures the magic that I witnessed in these schools, but it is a daunting task and I do not believe I will do it justice. Please reach out to me or visit the Challenging Learning website if you would like to have a more detailed conversation. I love to share, and I especially love to help schools!
The three schools we visited were at different places in their journey and located in different parts of England, but they all had very diverse populations and all began their Challenging Learning Process because they saw a need for change. Brudenell Primary School, located in Leeds is led by Headteacher Jill Harland, St John with St Mark Primary School, located in Bury is led by Headteacher Steven Ollis, and Highweek Primary School, located in Devon is led by Headteacher Judy Martyn. All three schools emphasized the fact that they are still on their improvement journey and also pointed out that they started out trying to do too much too fast. This work IS a journey and NOT a race!
One common focus in all three schools was learning. This may seem too simple and too obvious at first thought- of course you will focus on learning if you want to improve learning! What has worked for them, though, is the intentionality with which Challenging Learning helps teams to focus all efforts on learning. It starts with adult learning and the importance of supporting the educators in their learning. All three schools included ALL adults in training and held the educators accountable for continued learning. At Brudenell, Jill Harland first introduces all new concepts and strategies by modeling them with her staff. Their staff room is set up for dialogue and collaboration, and they consistently use opinion lines to make collaborative decisions:
At Brudenell, the teachers are assigned learning partners and they engage in a shared Action research throughout the year. At St John with St Mark, teachers are also expected to engage in action learning as part of their evaluation.
At Highweek, there is an entire wall display devoted to all of the learning they have engaged in throughout their Challenging Learning journey. They detail the learning and they provide evidence that demonstrates how it has become embedded in their school culture. The staff shared with us that part of their success is due to the fact that their staff “loves teaching because they love learning.”
The focus on learning and the fact that it is a journey and not an event is emphasized in each of the buildings as well. It was clear in the language that teachers used, the way that they delivered lessons, and in their wall displays. What really struck us was the way that these schools created consistent language and clearly articulated their vision throughout their classrooms while maintaining individuality and autonomy. Notice the variety in learning journeys:
All three schools have also been intentional about including parents in the learning by helping them to understand the language of learning and by including them in the learning process. Staff members shared stories with us about parents who were completely disengaged from school because of prior experiences that were not good, or because they did not believe in the value of education who are now excited to participate in school activities and who support their children in doing optional preview homework to prepare themselves for learning. At Brudenell, this bulletin board is prominently displayed at the entrance and includes flyers for parents to take home and use to support dialogue with their children:
At Highweek, they have been able to engage parents through the use of preview homework assignments. Rather than assigning homework that creates stress for parents who do not feel confident in being able to help their child, they send home preview assignments that are completely open-ended and encourage families to explore a topic that will be studied in the next couple of weeks. Families can create any product and present information in any way that is interesting to them. Highweek has had great success in engaging families in this way!
When educators focus on learning and especially on creating a culture of learning through shared language and shared purpose, they realize the importance of making learning clear and visible for the learners. This work was extremely evident in all three buildings. As we walked through classrooms and viewed student work, we saw learning objectives and success criteria everywhere. Students of all ages identified the learning objective associated with the work they were doing and they evaluated their work on clear success criteria. When we asked students what they were learning, they were able to tell us not only what they were learning, but what would come next in their learning. Here are examples of this clarity of purpose:
At this point, it is possible that some educators will see, in what I have shared, similarities to work that their school has done or that they have done in their classroom. Truly the magic of the Challenging Learning Process is the continuous improvement process that is developed and implemented alongside the school leaders so that the vision and context of the school can be artfully combined with the core strategies and principles of Challenging Learning. This is done through the use of Action Learning Cycles that include time for adult learning, authentic practice, modeling and support, and reflection. It is because of this integrated and cohesive approach to culture change that schools do not find it necessary to engage in additional and isolated efforts to change specific aspects of their culture such as Social Emotional Learning, Collective Efficacy, Self-efficacy, or differentiated instruction. All of this happens organically and authentically. We saw evidence of Challenging Learning priorities such as challenge and the learning pit, growth mindset, and the effective use of dialogue and feedback throughout the buildings that we visited.
Humans learn best when they challenge themselves to explore and question all that they believe to be true so that they can better understand and articulate their beliefs about the world. This idea of challenge and the creation of cognitive conflict in order to build and develop deeper understanding and learning is the foundation of Challenging Learning. We saw many examples of challenge and the use of the Learning Pit throughout the buildings. At Highweek, the teachers actually use the pit as a framework for their math lessons. We were able to observe students working through this framework, and the dialogue was absolutely astounding! The students were clearly learning and were able to apply their learning in a variety of ways. As I mentioned earlier, we were also impressed by the consistency of the Learning Pit idea and language combined with the individuality demonstrated in the different iterations.
Another foundation of Challenging Learning is Philosophy for Children (or P4C). Challenging Learning founder James Nottingham began using P4C in the early 1990’s as a way to encourage children to engage in inquiry through dialogue as they are challenged to clarify their own thinking and their own arguments. Therefore, all Challenging Learning Processes will include work with some aspect of P4C and/or dialogue. At Brudenell, they have a room in the school that is devoted to dialogue. Teachers can bring their classes to the room to facilitate dialogue activities or P4C sessions. They also have prompts for the 4 C’s (critical, creative, collaborative, and caring thinking) in each of the classrooms:
In all three schools, there was evidence of P4C and dialogue. In talking with students, it was also clear in all three settings that children have been given a voice and that they are comfortable sharing with and questioning each other and adults.
Another important strategy that is key to the Challenging Learning Process is the effective use of feedback. Some of the examples I shared above when discussing the use of Learning Objectives and Success Criteria, also include effective use of feedback. The students shared with me the process they use to receive and respond to feedback from their teachers. The teachers provide feedback either verbally or in writing, using a certain color pen (this varied from school to school but was consistent within schools), then the students responded to the feedback in a different color. This allowed them to view and appreciate their journey of learning and also emphasized the idea of learning from mistakes. Rather than erasing their mistakes and creating clean copies of their work, they were able to view the mistake AND the learning that occurred as a result of responding to the mistake! At Brudenell, they have taken the concept of feedback to the next level by creating displays that clearly identify what feedback is and what it looks like in their school:
When schools engage in a Challenging Learning Process, a key model that is utilized for all of the work is the ASK Model. The ASK Model encourages learners to think about the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed in order to learn. The educators in all three schools talked about how important the ASK model is to them as adult learners and how it has shaped how they plan for school improvement, think about their instruction, and engage in their own learning. They also indicated how useful it is to engage students in dialogue and for examination of their own learning. Challenging Learning consistently poses three questions to educators: Where are we going? Where are we now? What are our next steps? When combining the ASK model with these three questions, educators and students can continually evaluate and improve on what they are doing. The ASK Model was incredibly present in all settings and used in many different ways:
A natural result of all of this work is the development of a growth mindset. Highweek has been intentional in their efforts to promote and develop growth mindset, but it also occurs naturally when children begin to develop efficacy and perseverance as a result of being an integral part of the learning process. A growth mindset also develops as a result of the common understanding of the value of learning from mistakes that develops and by the elimination of the practice of shaming mistakes.
I have not stopped thinking about everything I heard and witnessed during my study tour in England. While the schools looked a little different from many of the schools I have seen in the United States, and the students were wearing uniforms and talked with a funny accent, I could have been in any US school when it came to the challenges being faced by the teachers, the students, and the leaders. Hearing about and seeing the evidence of their success provided me with hope, excitement, and a resolve to get to work helping educators in the US engage in this amazing transformation. Hearing their testimonies about the life-changing shifts and their appreciation of the support from Challenging Learning was chilling and motivating at the same time.