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Bryanston: a thinking school

Former Deputy Head Academic, David James, takes a look at a new introduction to 'D Activities' and how it is encouraging pupils to think not only about what they learn, but also how they learn.

'D Activities' is an established part of Bryanston’s identity. Every Monday our youngest pupils engage with a range of courses that extend them beyond the (sometimes rather restricting) confines of the taught curriculum. We are now trialling a new critical thinking course called Insight (written by Ian Warwick, CEO of London Gifted and Talented) for a selection of pupils. We are asking our D pupils to look at complex areas, including identity, migration, and poverty, but through various lenses, such as education, celebrity and ambition.

At a very fundamental level we are asking them to think about how they learn, and how to reflect on not only what they are learning, but how they are learning. When you think about it, schools are very good at telling pupils what they should be learning and why, but are less interested in asking them about how they learn. This is surprising because, according to reliable evidence, developing metacognitive skills, such as reflection, planning, and self-regulation is relatively cheap for a school, and has a high impact on pupil progress.

We recently asked a selection of our D pupils a number of questions to probe areas of their understanding and educational experience that are not always discussed. These questions included:

  • How do you know if you have made progress in a subject? 
  • What attitudes in pupils and teachers promote learning? 
  • What attitudes in pupils and teachers have a negative impact on learning? 
  • What qualities should an outstanding teacher have? 

It is interesting to ask if our pupils are able to be truly objective about a school system that they have been involved in since they were very young. Can they imagine something different from the model they are currently in? An obvious example of this is their view of ascertaining how they know if they have made progress in a subject. For a number of pupils the only way progress can be measured is through testing them regularly. Of course, testing is an essential tool, but is it the only one available to a school? Perhaps instead of discussing whether or not to test, we should ask ourselves how we should test, and with what regularity. One of our pupils in their reply sensibly pointed out that testing has flaws, and principal among those is the ability to retrieve information at a set time, and under particular conditions: such things affect outcomes.

All those Ds who answered the questions felt that for pupils to get the most out of their studies they need to have a ‘positive’ attitude to studying, arrive to class ready to learn, and be ready to listen. Such attitudes are, for our pupils, essential if they are to deepen their learning. But the conditions within that classroom are also vital: poor behaviour that distracts others is universally frowned on by every pupil who wrote on the factors which have a negative impact on learning. Given that there is a consensus view of disruptive behaviour (even of the low-level variety), and an awareness of how negative an impact it has on their own progress, it is perhaps surprising that in schools around the world pupils tolerate something so unacceptable on every level. 

There is also a consensus view on what qualities a teacher should exhibit to promote learning, and of course these directly link to our pupils’ views of what makes for an outstanding teacher. Responses to this question at times seemed a little daunting for any teacher to read: they ranged from possessing a great deal of patience, an ability to explain complex ideas in a straightforward (but not dumbed-down) way, kindness, being interesting, having authority and real expertise in the subject being taught, and, interestingly, for one of the D pupils asked, a willingness to look beyond examinations. 

Of course, asking pupils to think about such matters is in itself interesting, but this is only a sample. However, I would guess that they are typical of their peers. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ubiquity of technology in their lives, they at no point question the role of the teacher: the internet is, for our 13-year-olds, unlikely to replace teachers (which is a relief for teachers, and a view backed up by research). Perhaps this view is a direct result of their own experiences so far: they have always had a teacher physically involved in their learning, but it does confirm what we know (but need to occasionally hear from pupils): namely, that learning is a human activity that relies on, at times, transactions that cannot be measured or researched. 

Insight is part of a conversation we want to develop with our pupils: we want to listen to them, to learn from them about their own learning. In time we would hope to instigate research, and to see it influence and shape our own approaches to teaching and learning. Education stops being transformative when it travels in one direction only. For teachers to remain engaged in their own profession they have to continue to learn, from each other, from experts involved in pedagogy, and from the pupils they teach. In that way we make thinking, and learning, more visible, more understood, and for more than just the classroom.