I recently attended a ‘Thinking Saturday’ event on the theme of Poverty and Education. The first and second posts in this series can be found here and here. In this final post, I will outline some of the key features of the Praxis Curriculum – an innovative, evidence-informed approach to ‘learning to learn’ that I have been involved in developing and evaluating for the last 6 years or so – which address some of the issues identified in parts 1 and 2. I do not present this as a panacea to the disadvantage. But if we can replicate these findings more widely, it would be a giant leap in the right direction. If you work in a school and are interested in exploring ways of getting started, please drop me a line: email@example.com.
I am currently in the 5th and (hopefully) final year of a part-time PhD. My research focus is to carry out a longitudinal impact evaluation of a novel approach to Learning to Learn (L2L), which I helped develop and teach at a secondary school in the South of England from 2010 to 2015.
The Praxis Curriculum, as it has become known, combines taught lessons throughout Key Stage 3 (the first cohort had more than 400 lessons over 3 years) with a joined-up approach to whole-school teaching and learning, to ensure that proactive learning skills and dispositions are explicitly transferred throughout the school, enabling students to access higher grades across the curriculum.
The issue of transfer has often been the Achilles heel of L2L initiatives, and it is well understood that skills tend to remain rooted in the contexts in which they were developed. While transfer can and does happen to varying degrees, it certainly does not always happen automatically, and therefore requires careful management.
That was the idea anyway, and as it turned out we were pretty successful in achieving what we set out to do. Last month, my PhD supervisor and I published a journal article outlining the interim 3-year findings (the 5-year GCSE analysis will follow later this year). There’s a short video outlining the key findings here, and the paper is here (pay-walled unfortunately – it will eventually be open access, but is currently “under embargo”).
I won’t go into the findings here, other than to say that the Praxis Curriculum was associated with significantly improved attainment (all subjects combined) by the end of year 9, with exceptional gains among young people eligible for the Pupil Premium (often used as a shorthand for social or economic disadvantage).
Rather, building on the first 2 posts in this series I would like to outline a few aspects of the Praxis Curriculum that are especially beneficial to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will then suggest a simple reason as to why this should be the case.
A trusted point of contact
The nature of the Praxis Curriculum is such that the teacher gets to know the students really well – much more so than I have ever been able to do as a Teacher of Science or a form tutor. One reason for this is that there’s a central and continuing focus on developing high quality speaking and listening skills. We do this through philosophical inquiries, paired talk tasks, structured debates and public speaking – all of which is modelled, explained, practiced and fed back on. (Using traditional means to achieve progressive ends, you might say). So we literally spend lots of time speaking and listening to one another. And because there’s no pre-ordained subject content, we are free to explore issues that really matters to the students – whatever they may be.
Each half-term there’s a 6-week project – either individual or small group based (these alternate). Because there’s an explicit approach to helping all students develop the social, emotional and linguistic skills needed to work effectively in pairs and small groups (‘ground rules for group talk’ is the key to that, in case you were wondering), the teacher is able to spend far more of their time observing, noticing, listening, or working one-to one than is usually the case when there’s an ocean of content to wade through.
Also, each week the students write at length in reflective learning journals, which are dialogue marked (light literacy marking, combined with comment-based feedback to prompt students into reflecting on how learning happens).
All of which means the teacher gets to know the students really well. However, I think this is just a start – it could be taken much further. For example, ideally I think the Praxis teacher should also be a Year 7 tutor for their class. In addition to this they could have a pastoral role for all the students who have previously been their year 7 Praxis classes. This would build over time, to the point of having 5 groups with 30 students per year group (years 7 to 11), in a role not dissimilar to a head of year. This vertical student liaison role would ensure that all students have a regular point of contact throughout their time at the school. This is something I will ask schools to consider as we begin to develop this approach more widely.
Finding the time to explore young people’s life narratives
It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: the transition from July of year 6 to September of year 7 is brutal:
- You go from being the oldest in a community – the cohort others look up to for support, guidance and mentorship – to being the youngest and therefore the most vulnerable;
- You go from a community where you are well known, and where it is quite possible to know most people by name if not by association, to one where many students do not even know the names of all their teachers;
- You go from having 1 main teacher for 5 days a week, to having around 10 teachers scattered randomly throughout the week – with no one adult who really knows you;
- In a secondary school, the Dunbar number (and anthropological rule of thumb which states that humans can handle around 150 relationships) is often exceeded even within a single year group, never mind within the community at large. This can precipitate a crisis of identity which sees many young people getting lost in a sea of behaviours which seek mainly to get themselves noticed by their peers – something, anything to give them a sense of identity among the uniformed anonymity, even if it’s something so banal as hiding another student’s pen, or “accidentally” falling off a chair.
When you stop to think about it, it’s little wonder that we see a ‘dip’ in Key Stage 3 that some ever really come back out of. And it is disadvantaged young people who are disproportionately affected by primary-secondary transition – as was recognised by Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, when he said “We know that difficulty making this transition effectively is one of the key stumbling blocks to improving social mobility in this country.”
The first project we run in the Praxis Curriculum is to give the students 6 weeks to answer the question “Who am I?”. They are free to respond to this question however they see fit, and the responses vary significantly. Some get on the Internet and make family trees dating back to medieval times. Others interview elderly family members. Others make models of their homes, with figures of their siblings, pets etc. Others may make collage boards or photo slide shows. Or they do a combination of some or all of these things.
Throughout these projects, students set their own short, medium and long-term targets (including setting their own homework tasks each week). Each students’ progress is reviewed each week in a brief “check-in” with the teacher. And at the end of each half term, each student presents their project to the class, and their projects are self, peer and teacher evaluated according to success criteria set by the students themselves. All of this is about developing self-regulation, by the way – essential stuff if you want to develop independent, resilient learners.
Again, the identity project is not presented here “the answer” to the problem of transition. Nor am I suggesting it’s a new idea: I remember doing something similar myself in Year 7 English. But if your school doesn’t currently give students a big old chunk of time to explore their identity at the start of year 7, perhaps you might want to find a way of making that happen.
A flexible, responsive approach to curriculum
Two of the half-termly projects are rooted in library-based research (one individual, and one in group project – both resulting in a presentation to the class). The students are told they can only choose books from certain shelves – academic topics which are not on the menu at school usually: politics, international relations, anthropology, psychology, sociology, photography, a suitable biography. Ideally not current affairs – this features more in the year 8 programme of study.
The group research project is really fascinating, as the students must firstly undergo intense negotiations to identify topic they can all agree on. To give an example from a Year 7 class I once taught… Jasmine had picked up an ancient-looking child-friendly ‘Introduction to feminism’, and wanted to do something about that. Ryan, her partner, had picked up a huge glossy tome about Latin America. He had never even heard of the continent previously, and wanted to find out more. They debated it back and forth for a while; neither wanted to budge. Finally, a light bulb blinked on. “Why don’t we do it about feminism in Latin America?” asked Jasmine, wide-eyed.
The next day Michael, the 3rd member of their group, returned from an absence. He was dead set on doing something about China. By now, they had the hang of the art of negotiation: they soon agreed to do a comparative study of feminism in Latin America and China. They required some help from a teaching assistant to understand some of the more challenging articles they located. But their presentation to the class 6 weeks later was really incredible, taking in such diverse topics as the life and art of Frida Kahlo, the relationship between communism and feminism, dowries, foot binding and the one child policy.
So while the Praxis Curriculum does not include the use of pre-ordained “knowledge planners”, it is by no means content-free. This enables students to extend their gaze farther and wider than is possible through traditional subject disciplines.
Again, I do not mean to suggest that such open-ended study should be the sole method of knowledge acquisition. However such a flexible approach to curriculum focus does complement and enrich subject-based study, and I endorse it thoroughly.
Exposure to positive experiences
The Praxis Curriculum exposes young people to positive experiences in a number of ways – some quite standard, some less so. For example in year 8 we gave each student £2, and set them an enterprise task to turn it into £25 to pay for a trip to Thorpe Park. They had to have receipts to show how they had bought and sold things, or carried our chores using things they had bought with the £2, in order to raise the money for the trip. So not only were they exposed to a trip out – a standard positive experience – but they were exposed to the value of money, and the notion of having to pay your way. And some of them made an absolute fortune! It turns out with a decent tube of glue you can make really cool jewellery out of old lego and scrabble pieces and whatnot, and make an absolute killing.
We also did things like planning and building an allotment, and “events management” (e.g. planning and running a Christmas market for visiting Year 5s). But if I had to point to one thing that makes the Praxis Curriculum beneficial to disadvantaged young people in particular, I think I think it’s that we exposed all students to one another, and thus to themselves.
To clarify, because I realise that sounds a bit cheesy – the Praxis Curriculum is a mixed ability approach, and there was a clear and explicit expectation – right from the start of the year, and repeated ad infinitum – that by the end of the year, all students would be able to communicate and work effectively in any group they find themselves in. (They start the year in a pair of their choosing for talk tasks, building their way up in cycles to working in an unfamiliar group of 6 for the summer term project).
We spent a lot of time on this. Whenever a group project began, all students were required to look one another in the eye and say “I look forward to working with you”. (They squirmed at first, but soon got used to it when they realised there was no mileage in refusing). This served as an effective pre-emptive strike against any complaints of the “I’m not sitting next to him” variety. We also spent a lot of time talking about the importance of body language – how if you are put in a group and someone selectively ignores you, that kind of passive-aggressive bullying can be even more damaging than outright name-calling.
I think all students benefitted from this requirement of the course, and I wish ‘learning how to get along with one another’ was more widely recognised as perhaps the best answer to the question of “what is education for?”.
To wrap it up for now
There’s plenty more to say on this subject, but this post is an impolite length already. To conclude for now – I don’t think it’s any surprise that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds should gain more from approaches like these. In the Praxis Curriculum, all students engage in a 3-year metacognitive journey, through which they are exposed to many different kinds of learning processes – as well as reflecting regularly and deeply on how they learn in different contexts. This policy of exposing young people to one another in positive ways benefits all young people socially – and for those with more to gain academically, the academic gains are greater for the simple reason that they have more to gain.
That’s what you call a win-win. We are currently in the process of looking to identify suitable schools so that we can begin to implement these practices more widely. If you work in a school and are interested in exploring ways of getting started, please drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.