The Power of Let's Think in English

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Here Is one of our Let’s Think in English teachers’ accounts of their development while teaching the lessons. Sarah Cunningham is a Year 6 teacher in Berrywood Primary School, Hampshire. She attended a 6 days training course led by Leah Crawford (Hampshire LTE Tutor) and Michael Walsh over 2 years and is leading her school in developing the approach this year. You can learn more about the programme at www.letsthinkinenglish.org.uk or by contacting Michael.walsh@letsthink.org.uk

Having recently graduated from the two-year Let’s Think in English training programme,I have been astounded by the change in learning characteristics displayed by the pupils I have taught. I have noticed a shift from reserved children to children confident to make a contribution; from one-word answers to developed, well-reasoned responses; from accepting the first answer given as the ‘right one’ to challenging each other’s thinking; from teacher led discussions to child initiated talk; from passive learners to creative and critical thinkers who willingly want to make a contribution.

This is the power of Let’s Think in English.

My LTE journey started just over two years ago. At the time, I wondered what I was about to be part of. My colleague and I had been sent the course outline and I couldn’t help but notice a section titled, “What happened to Lulu?” We looked at each other in a puzzled manner. She was a 60’s popstar who went on to compete in Strictly Come Dancing, wasn’t she? Nevertheless we had been persuaded by our Headteacher that this course was a game-changer in education and that we were about to become part of something special. We brushed our thoughts of Lulu’s career aside and attended the launch day.

Led by the inspiring Michael Walsh and Leah Crawford, at the launch day we were presented with the research base behind LTE and shown the statistics demonstrating the significant impact on results in classes and schools where LTE had been implemented. The different aspects of the lessons were explained to us and we were given the opportunity to be involved in a couple of simulated lessons for us to then take back to our classes to trial. By the end of the day, I was excited. Not only had we discussed what really might have happened to Lulu, (from the Charles Causley poem,) but most importantly I had been exposed to a way of educating children that made sense to me.

As a child, I was always the one questioning “Why?” when introduced to new concepts. At the time, it was a case of learning by rote and therefore, on reflection, I spent much of my own education as a passive learner, who lacked a depth of understanding and just plugged through a list of maths equations and learnt the annotations of my poetry anthology and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ off by heart. I remember being highly frustrated by this. It didn’t mean anything to me. When I embarked on my teaching career, much of my time at university was spent having lightbulb moments as I made connections with concepts I had been exposed to, but didn’t understand, as a child. Having experienced Philosophy for Children in the school where I volunteered in my gap year, I became passionate about how it promoted the development of children’s higher-order thinking skills.

Since then I have relished the opportunity to ensure the children who I teach do not feel like passive learners and I feel very fortunate to have embarked on my LTE journey from my NQT year. LTE has been central to my development as a teacher as it encompasses many of the aspects of P4C and encourages the children to find and formulate their own voice and ideas.

One of the greatest impacts of LTE has been the development of critical and creative thinkers in my classroom. Children in each of the three classes I have taught over the past two and half years have developed their ability to formulate their ideas at a small group level and then been able to present their contribution to the whole class. What was perhaps most encouraging was the children’s interest and desire to listen to each other’s contributions. Even if they disagreed, they could refer to comments made several minutes before. Pupils become confident to respectfully and critically evaluate each other’s and their own contributions and over time, they begin to reflect on what caused the change in their thinking. Class discussions that were previously led and perhaps shut down by more confident children have been replaced with rich dialogue involving each class member and led by the children.

It has also been interesting to note the children who make the contributions and to analyse what the children say in their responses. Quite surprisingly I found that many of my more vulnerable pupils, including children on the SEN register, were becoming highly involved in the discussions and providing well thought-through and linguistically developed ideas. Complex grammar develops through talk before it emerges in writing.

At this point it is perhaps important for me to say that in our school we do not set or group the children by ability. The children sit in groups of 4-6 of mixed ability. I strongly believe that the exposure of children who would previously have been considered ‘lower ability’ to the high quality, rich texts and stimulus used in the LTE sessions has meant that they have made significant progress, especially within their analysis and responses to texts in reading sessions. LTE encourages struggle and challenge and the children rise to it.

I recognise that being the cup-half-full-girl that I am, I have so far presented a very sunny picture of LTE. I am inspired by it and in awe of the impact it has had on many children’s education because of its underlying pedagogies. But it doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced my own struggle along the way. I have referred to my LTE experience as a journey, which is exactly what it has been. I started it as a very new teacher and on a surface level learnt useful tips such as not choosing your most confident child to begin the discussion as it will then shut the rest of the dialogue down. I found it very difficult not to positively reinforce contributions and respond with a ‘well done’ and an excitable dance at the front of my classroom when the child I least expected shared a thought-provoking idea that changed the thinking of the class. Mastering the art of a poker-face has taken time.

Equally, so has not leading the children in a certain direction. It’s very tempting from having simulated many of the lessons on the course to want to steer the children in a certain direction or to expect them to reach a certain point. On some occasions, I have had to learn to accept children not getting to where I was expecting them to get to or to accept that they have taken the course of discussion down a different route. Two years on, I’m now excited to see how the children steer the discussion and where they take it. As teachers we are so driven and pressured by feeling like we have to get the children to a certain point of understanding by a certain time that it is refreshing to adopt this approach. It has however, taken time to know when to draw the children back to the question and knowing when to intervene, when to probe and when to encourage generalisation.

When I began teaching my first series of LTE sessions, my colleague and I were observed by the rest of our LTE cluster group. I was amazed by the quality of the dialogue and on this occasion, spent approximately half an hour on the social construction aspect of the lesson. It’s easy to get caught up by the quality of children’s responses and forget you are the guardian of the lesson shape. I often ran short of time for the meaty part of the lessons: cognitive conflict and metacognition. This was a learning curve for me.

There are countless points that I could list detailing how LTE has impacted on my teaching practice.  Most importantly, my style of questioning has changed – my favourite question now being, “What led you to think that?” As a result of LTE, I have thought more carefully about how my questions can facilitate an open discussion, ensuring I am not leading, but encouraging speculation and challenge from the children.

Soon after beginning the LTE course, it was apparent how many aspects, especially the cognitive conflict, could be applied to other areas of the curriculum. In maths we often begin the lesson with a reasoning starter. I approach this as I would LTE by giving the children time talk in their group to respond to the starter before opening it up into a class dialogue. I facilitate the discussion exactly as I would a LTE lesson. This leads to a range of responses and the children evaluating which answer is more likely and providing evidence to justify why. As well as this, I have planned English units in which I have used a LTE style lesson to present the text to the children. This worked effectively with the book ‘Window’ by Jeannie Baker and caused lots of rich discussion and ultimately resulted in some really high quality writing.

One of the biggest changes we have made, only recently and as a result of LTE, is to the teaching of reading. We now expose the children to the text, or part of the text in the first session, depending on how we have planned the structure of the questioning that follows. We then facilitate a LTE style session to develop children’s responses to the text and gain a deeper understanding and allow children to bring their own experiences to the discussion. The natural way LTE supports children to infer from the text and refer to the text in their responses to justify their contribution has been central to developing their ability to respond to high quality texts. Following this, in the third session, the children write a written response to the questions discussed on the previous day. Since starting this way of teaching reading in September, children are writing developed, well-evidenced and reasoned answers. They are confident to explain why they have chosen to include a certain quote to support their response and are answering the questions more thoroughly and accurately than we have ever experienced before.

It is only right to include the response of the children

“Let’s Think has helped me expand my imagination, made think outside the box and when I am editing pieces of work.”

“Let’s Think has helped me feel more confident in showing and giving my ideas.”

“It’s helped me listen.”

“The Let’s Think lessons have helped me to read through the text more carefully and look for clues in words I wouldn’t normally look at. Although sometimes I don’t want to answer the question, it has boosted my confidence to try.”

“Let’s think has helped me think more deeply and try to find hidden meaning through texts. I say my answers in better ways and have more confidence to disagree with others opinions if my own are different.”

“Let’s Think has helped me be more confident in giving thorough answers. It’s helped my memory and listening skills.”

“Let’s Think has helped me to read in-between the lines and listen and concentrate better.”

“I am confident with Let’s Think. It has helped me think more deeply about things and it gives me a better memory.”

“Let’s Think helps me in my reading because it is making my writing more mature and it helps me to retrieve evidence from the text.”

“I feel different since October but I still need to improve.”

“Let’s Think has helped me with my inference skills and my skills for backing up my opinion. I have also learnt how to link other ideas to the conversation and plan out what to say before saying it.”

It is exciting and rewarding to read these comments, knowing it has had a huge impact on the children’s learning; LTE goes far beyond delivering curriculum content. It has the power to engage learners, make them passionate about what they are discussing and be creative and critical when responding to both a stimulus and each other.

As Nelson Mandela so famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we have to change the world.” LTE empowers children to engage in their learning critically and creatively, children become passionate about the contributions they and their classmates make and be actively involved in leading their learning. At a time when teachers are hounded by pressures of ensuring each child makes enough progress, delivering a significantly more challenging curriculum and mounting paperwork pressures, there is potential to lose the sole purpose of education and to end up creating learners taught by numbers in a robotic fashion.

LTE can be the difference.

It supports the move from reserved children to children confident to make a contribution; from one-word answers to developed, well-reasoned responses; from accepting the first answer given as the ‘right one’ to challenging each other’s thinking; from teacher led discussions to child-initiated talk; from teacher to facilitator; from passive learners to creative and critical thinkers who willingly want to make a contribution.

Sarah Cunningham

Year 6 teacher

Berrywood Primary School

Hampshire