Stop what you are doing right now, including that planning for next term, because what I am about to tell you is going to BLOW YOUR MIND!
English teachers! You don’t need to kill yourself singing and dancing around the room to impress your students and observers anymore. Not everything has to be made from scratch to differentiate for every child with pages and pages of lesson plans! Forget it! Some clever people, far more clever than I (and possibly you –I don’t know how clever you are) have been making some incredible, brain twisting lessons, designed to accelerate progress, massively enthuse your students and reinvigorate your love for teaching.
If you haven’t already heard of it, it’s called ‘Let’s Think’ and has been designed by the super intelligent whizzes at Kings College. Previously there have been Let’s Think initiatives in mathematics and science and now we are the lucky ones to receive their special attention.
For the last few years Let’s Think in English (LTE) have been running trials over the country, testing their lessons out on unsuspecting children and more-than-happy-to-participate teachers. I have been lucky enough to be part of this trial and, as you can probably tell, am a huge fan of something that seems so simple but is actually highly complex and taps into educational theory which, frankly, I do not have time to pour over every day to plan my lessons.
Let’s Think in English uses established lesson plans, with ready-made resources (text extracts, power points), you have to use these as deviating massively from them will not achieve the cognitive challenge you require. Secondly, no writing! Using the same principles as P4C, LTE is about talk in small groups and then whole class and teacher questioning, students questioning each other, debating and finding their own answers – as answers are rarely provided. You can use the topics to bridge into writing pieces if you want to and because of the creative skills and thinking used in the talk lessons, content is vastly improved and controlled.
Lessons are split into stages, first there is ‘concrete preparation’ which is the background to the text, stuff they need to know in order to access it as sometimes texts are set in different countries or a long time ago. Next is ‘social construction’ where students engage with the text, be it lines from a poem, an extract from prose or a play or sometimes just a few random words and give their initial feedback. The next bit is my favourite and when I had a lesson taught to me I thought my head might explode – ‘cognitive conflict’ – the teacher poses a question or introduces something new that shatters previous illusions and forces students to have to rebuild their ideas all over again – your brain will hurt. This is followed by ‘social construction’ again as students are trying to apply what they now know to the text, ending with ‘metacognition’ where they consider what they know now and how they know it.
The weird thing about Let’s Think (at first) is that you are not allowed to use praise. Chin stroking, thoughtful nodding, ‘Hmmm – I see’, ‘Very interesting’ or redirecting to another student is perfectly acceptable but no ‘Fantastic’(s) or ‘What an amazing response!’(s). No.
This feels completely alien as it is second nature for us to leap on a great answer, not only to encourage but to show case to everyone else what you wanted the answer to be, right? WRONG!
LTE philosophy works on the principle that those students who are routinely praised become confident and happy to share their answers with the whole class – but what about the rest of the students? They begin to feel like such and such always gets it right so I’ll just rely on them to give the right answer; if there is a ‘right’ answer there is always a danger of being wrong. Take that danger away and what is there to be scared of? This one important change in teacher behaviour lifts the barriers of participation away and once you start doing it in Let’s Think, you’ll start doing it in your other lessons too. And as we know, interpretation is everything at GCSE Language and Literature; students must have the confidence to try out their ideas.
Following on from the ‘right answer’ issue, I have been forced to reconsider the way I learn whilst teaching LTE. I’d read the lesson and the text beforehand and go through my own cognitive processes – oh I see that’s how you get to this because they said this etc etc. But actually just because I came up with it in one particular way does not mean it’s the right way. This point is pretty deep and it wasn’t until I sat down with a transcript of an answer my class had given to a question that I realised that I hadn’t registered the quality of a student’s response, simply because I couldn’t see what she was talking about or how she had got there. Her personal experience had brought her to her interpretation but because I have different personal experiences, I had (in my head) dismissed it.
I have been trialling LTE with two classes this year (7s and 9s) and a really good example of this is the Year 7 class, who, no matter what text we were studying always related the text back to fathers, asking where is the father? Maybe this person’s father died, maybe they are into this or that because their father was? However, the 9s brought different experiences and tended to focus on death, always picking up clues about potential death to come or psychological trauma. And if you’re thinking ‘How come they were doing the same lesson when they are two years apart?’ that is exactly why! The challenge is there, the differentiation is the interpretation and the questioning.
So what about the impact of Let’s Think? LTE is designed to be taught every two weeks, one off lessons are fine – when I would announce to my class that we were doing Let’s Think the next day there would be a cheer, they loved working in small groups and the texts and questions set by the lessons would inspire fierce debate. I measured the progress of my students over the year, with the help of GL tests and the gains made by students were impressive, especially effective for ‘stuck’ students or those who came into Key Stage 3 on level 4, although the gains for those who came in on 5s were equally as impressive, with one making a leap of twenty points in standardised scores, measured at the beginning and end of the year.
I’m not saying that Let’s Think is going to produce a generation of geniuses, that is not what I am saying at all but English can be so bogged down in writing, grammar and punctuation it can sometimes fail to excite across the board. This isn’t to say that we can abandon these things, we can’t, but what LTE does is very carefully look at how writers use those things, provide examples of texts that don’t tick the ‘19th century non-fiction’ box or force an unnecessary comparison between Shakespeare and Larkin – they ask, instead, how do writers lay traps for us? How did the writer get this across to us? Actually, all the answers are there in the writing, the structure, the deliberate selection of sentence lengths, vocabulary and punctuation. If we can get our students talking about this, regularly, we can get them to write about it at the same time as providing good models of how they should be writing themselves.
I would love to attach Let’s Think lesson plans and resources right here so you could use them but I can’t. Firstly because I think they are copyrighted and I would be sued but also because you have to be specially trained to deliver these lessons. I have taken part in a county wide trial this year; we would meet up and share our experiences, observe each other, analyse transcripts and the quality of student answers based on Piaget’s concepts of mental development. I am telling you about this now but there is loads of stuff I don’t know about yet. In order to maintain the integrity of the project and its effect, it must be responsibly passed on.
Pearson and Edexcel have bought some of the GCSE lessons off Kings and are currently marketing them to schools. I cannot comment on these as I have only taught the Key Stage 3 ones. But I was dismayed to hear that they were being sold off. In my idealistic world the DfE would have heard about this, Nicky Morgan would be throwing her hands up in celebration, finally an answer of how she could make a contribution to lessening the workload of teachers and helping them deliver quality lessons. In this utopia the DfE would approach Kings College, contribute towards their research and ask them to get a team together to go round training departments. And if the English project is so great why not take the maths and science ones out on the road too? Although I am sure there is some reason why this is not possible, one that I cannot comprehend. Shame though.
So how can you get Let’s Think at your school? Badger your local authority, try out a free lesson, go and observe someone else doing it, do whatever you can because this is not an opportunity to be missed!