Co-Construction: Students Building Lessons With You

This year I teach two Year 9 History classes, one in the ‘conventional’ fashion and one using co-construction.  Without further ado and to save you scrolling to the end of this post to see my assessment of the benefits to learning I believe I’m detecting, here they are:

  • there is a much stronger sense among students of how a lesson is put together to achieve learning
  • there is a much stronger sense of what that learning might actually be
  • they now have hard, practical experience of constructing a lesson, and then reviewing it and refining it for next time
  • this has generated  an overview of learning and progress which I might have occasionally managed with Sixth Form classes in the past but not with younger classes; this is metacognition

These are bold claims, perhaps, and they need to be accompanied by disclaimers.  I’m certainly not claiming that co-construction is the answer for my own teaching, let alone anyone else’s, nor that what follows is in any way worthy of  terms such as ‘research’ or ‘scientific’, ‘control group’ or ‘quantifiable’.  This is anecdotal, local, particular and personal but, imperfect as it is, my experience so far is summarised here in the hope that it may trigger responses and dialogue.

What is Co-Construction?

The easiest way to answer this is to read Tom Sherrington’s inspirational posts:

It was this that encouraged me to pick up some bricks.  I went through some of the ‘cons’ of what I perceived to be Tom’s situation:  ‘He’s a Head, his kids are bound to be onside’; ‘Parents won’t get too stroppy if it goes a bit wrong’ and for each force found an equal and opposite force:  ‘He’s walking the walk and is under pressure to get it right’; ‘He’s doing this with an IGCSE Physics class, that’s really high stakes’.  In the end, the matter mattered more than the anti-matter and I decided to launch my own experiment.  I am helped by the circumstances of a Head, SLT and Head of Department who are willing to encourage  different methods of teaching and learning, which I realise is an enormous privilege, but none of them will sit on the sidelines, either, if the particles collide, nothing measurable results and learning is harmed.  Having said that, one of the points I made when offering these thoughts to   @Teach_MeetBristol  led by the admirable @betsysalt and the inimitable @ICTEvangelist this week was that we can wait forever for the ‘right’ circumstances in terms of class, year group, set of resources, the absence or likely absence of inspectors, and so on, and these delays will just mean that we don’t do it.

Action this day, as Churchill reputedly urged.  I chose one of my  two Year 9 classes for the launch of co-construction  and this was the class with the less difficult reputation, but looking back now I think that the tougher class could have benefited just as much.

How does it work?

Students are in groups of 4-5.  We’ve changed them around a few times but now they’re settled in groups to which they like to belong.  We have fixed points we need to hit, ie Common Assessments derived from the Scheme of Work.  How we go about learning skills and knowledge to do well in those assessments is up to us.  We’ve planned sequences of lessons, some of which students have presented  and some of which I’ve led in conventional fashion.  What’s different about co-construction is that it takes what we’ve all done as teachers in a typical double lesson, asking students to research and plan a topic on say, factory conditions for children during the Industrial Revolution  and then present their findings to the class,  and makes that process part of a template for the whole year.  Just like us, the more they practise, the better they become.  The better they become, the more they think about what’s working and why.  They take full and equal responsibility for their learning.  It has been hard work.  Co-construction has needed a hard hat at times, but then I’m learning, too.

The prefix ‘co’ is vital.  This process doesn’t involve me sitting back and letting them get on with lessons.  Tom Sherrington makes this point very strongly.  He also affirms that there has to be stretch and challenge and sheer academic rigour to  the process, otherwise we sink to the lowest common denominator of dodgy Powerpoints and performance masquerading as progress.  We want enjoyable lessons but I’m not interested in ‘fun’ as a discrete aim.

The building site so far…

We’re only part way through the year, and it won’t be until the summer that I can take stock properly.  Pupils have filled in self-assessment sheets and stuck them in their books, and seem to respect what we are doing. Their goodwill has, of course, been the cement holding the whole edifice together.

I said to them back in September, rather naively, that with their vast experience as lesson observers they could use this year to share with me some of the best lessons and learning experiences they’d ever had, in any subject and at any age.  They therefore had every freedom to think about how to research and present to the class a topic such as the introduction of railways.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, their first efforts were fairly low-level and unskilful, with all due respect!   Over-reliance on the textbook, Q and A sessions which fell into ‘shout out the answer’, it was all there.  Of course, they needed to master the basics before they could move on.  The turning point came from them, not from me.  Emma and Sam (I’ve changed their names)  came up with a lesson plan which immediately raised the bar.  If you click on the photo you can see it clearly:


Sam’s mother is a primary school teacher, and that influence shows clearly in the plan, but I’m assured that Sam did much of the work himself and the sheer quality of his and Emma’s mini-lesson with the class supports that view.  They managed a variety of resources and methods, they hooked nineteenth-century railways to debates about HS2 today, and they thought about different ability levels in the class.

We’ve now moved on to look at World War I.  This is where it gets exciting.  Having taken a lead within their old group, Sam and Emma are now coaching their new group through the planning of a mini-lesson on what happened at the end of the war, a topic their group has opted for.  They’ve had several stabs at a simpler lesson plan; click on the photo to see what’s changed:


I love the term ‘cool down’ as an alternative to plenary.  I’m as excited by the process as much as the outcome.  They and the other groups have become self-aware, self-critical lesson constructors.  I’ve thrown at them some questions familiar to us all:  When you offer us your mini-lesson, how will the class learn?  How will you know what they’ve learnt?  How will the class know how to do well in the written taks you set them?  In the next couple of weeks they will peer-assess their mini-lessons and, as the next stage of our co-construction self-build, they will assess each other’s homework tasks using mark schemes I’ll help them put together.  If we can extend that by the end of the year to include parents in the loop of feedback and assessment, I’ll be delighted.

Lessons learned

  • To repeat the point, co-construction is self-build, Grand Designs, with the associated learning rollercoaster to experience.  I’ve spent more time meeting students outside of lessons and planning lessons than I have with the parallel class
  • I’ve failed to inspire them so far to offer, for example, an ICT strand to run alongside what we do:  a class blog, for example
  • We’ve gone at a slower pace and have covered less content than the parallel class
  • They haven’t magically stopped being Year 9s, so there have been some tetchy moments within groups

None of the above outweighs some of the gains:

  • This is student-centred learning in action, and it works.  There is a balance of individual, pair and group work but most of the time they have to make their groups work
  • They’ve raised their knowledge and skills bar and we are now all teaching to the top.  My sense is, although I need to think about this more, that the weaker ones are more secure in their groups and are being helped by what we are doing rather than floundering
  • Classically, my ‘weaker-on-paper’ boys are genuinely coming to the fore when talking to the class, and our collective peer assessment is able to reward this in ways which my book-marking would not.  This is differentiation, n’est-ce pas, and it has just arisen organically rather than artificially.
  • The fact that we are doing this across whole sequences of lessons makes genuine progress in History, whatever that is and however we might define it, more likely to happen than within a snapshot single lesson

With all due respect, I deliberately haven’t read Tom Sherrington’s more recent posts on his journey with co-construction, which include:

I’m just including the links without reading the text properly!   I know his great practice is out there, and I’m sure his Grand Design takes the whole process to a different level, but I have to do this in my own terms and adapt the general principles to my own class’s learning needs.  I’ll catch up with that reading at the end of the year.  Meanwhile, the building work continues.

The magnificence of Model United Nations: stretch and challenge for all your students

This is a quick post to champion the glories of the Model United Nations activity and to explain why it might help your students.  Some of you will know all about this so, in the words of the immortal Frank Drebin, nothing to see here.MUN

The first time I ever saw a MUN in full flow I was gobsmacked.  Where’s the teacher?  What’s going on?  Why are these students not sitting around, chatting, off-task malingering and timewasting?  Why do they look utterly serious and focussed on the task at hand?  And that was just a committee.  I then had the formality of a General Assembly (GA) to witness:  five students sitting at a desk and commanding a vast school hall, simultaneously inviting delegates to address the floor (‘Brazil you have been recognised.’), listening to  speeches, no, listening really hard to  speeches, judging the pace and mood of a debate, keeping track of time, reading and writing notes to delegates, responding to fierce Points of Information and Points of Order from the floor; in short, multi-tasking before the term was in common use and doing so with an effortless ease that would put most teachers to shame, myself very much included.  Not that the presence or absence of teachers seemed to make any difference anyway….The teacher who introduced me to MUN said that it had given him some of the most fulfilling experiences of his career, and I can now see why.  Great shout, Tim Woffenden.

And it hasn’t changed since.  Dozens of MUNs later, the sheer visceral thrill of seeing students lobbying, researching and debating to a high level (and the commensurate disappointment when they don’t) produces a physical response.  Am I sounding keen enough?  Why else would sixteen schools send a total of 200 sixth-form delegates to our Bristol Grammar School MUN on a wet Saturday in early February if they weren’t convinced of the benefits of taking part?  Some schools sent two or three teachers as advisers.  My school is a busy independent day school, but we had state and independent schools attending, including one whose teachers left Brighton at 4.45am to get to Bristol for the day, and then had to get home afterwards. Now that’s what I call commitment.

Martin Robinson @SurrealAnarchy in Trivium (Independent Thinking Press, 2013) avers that the purpose of education is to change people’s lives.  One way to enable this is to look at classical and medieval models of the trivium, the core skills of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.  How can we construct a trivium for the twenty-first century, asks Martin?  Well, perhaps the Model United Nations and similar activities could make a tiny contribution.  It’s cheap, cheerful, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, doesn’t throw out everything you’ve already learned and requires enthusiasm more than expertise.  What’s not to like?

How does it work?  It’s really a school debating club, or role play.  Best advice is to start small and manageable with a lunchtime or afterschool club or activity and a topic or theme very much in the news.  As with the trivium there are three core elements to MUN.

1.  Research and resolution writing

Random googling and internet trawling is the bugbear of many a teacher, and MUN builds in rigour here.  The committee structure of the United Nations is aped by its Model junior, so many contemporary news topics fall under the auspices of a committee.  For example, concerns about global warming and climate change will fall under the Environment Committee; issues surrounding child soldiers might come under the Human Rights Committee; then there are powerful bodies like the Political Committee or Security Council. If students go to the websites of MUNs such as Cheadle Hulme (known to devotees as MUNCH) they will find briefing papers produced ahead of their conference to aid delegates and direct their research, with lots of links.  These can be used to indicate the depth of knowledge needed to flourish at MUN.  Knowledge really is power.  At first students may need directive practice, but they rapidly move to guided and then independent practice – or the I-we-you model used by Doug Lemov which Martin Robinson in turn discusses in his book.  Research skills soon blossom:  Embassy websites, the brilliant resources offered by NGOs, The Economist, The Times, JSTOR, the United Nations itself.  They move from the shallows to depth, from insight to information, from scan to substance.  This happens at their own pace, according to their own abilities and interests – doesn’t that have something to do with differentiation, too?

Resolution writing has its own specific, sometimes frustrating grammar.  Rules rule.  Preambulatory clauses require careful formulation to introduce and contextualise a problem; operative clauses demand absolute precision and concision.  Constructing a resolution offers stretch and challenge for the most able students, and the process of drafting, modelling and remodelling to perfection is entirely what Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence advocates.  Questioning, thinking, debating with others what to include and what to omit is an internal and shared dialectic.  What will this clause achieve?  Is this whole resolution likely to be thrown out or amended in debate- unless we add or take out this clause?  Wow, it’s exciting work even trying to get it right, and gutting to see a resolution or amendment demolished.

2.  Lobbying:  it may be dialectic or it may be rhetoric, but either way MUN requires it and allocates generous time for it.  This means that a resolution or an amendment has to attract signatories and support if it is to be chosen for debate amidst competing resolutions or amendments, and if it is to be voted through at the end of the debate.  This needs persuasion, inducement, cajoling, arm-twisting, and even threatening – within the bounds of acceptable MUN tolerances.  Students have to talk to peers they may not know, or at first like, but the goodwill of MUN invariably triumphs and the whole process, well, it just works.  Interestingly, the time allocated at MUNs for lobbying is often far greater than I as a teacher allow students ‘to discuss’ an issue, so that’s certainly something to take on board in lesson planning.

3  Debating:  the rhetoric here involves listening as much as speaking.  How can you contribute if you haven’t really heard what the delegate from China has said about same-sex marriage, or what the Ivory Coast representative is proposing to tackle the international arms trade?  Formulating an off-the-cuff response to a complex issue in front of other people is a skill that’s acquired and then polished.    Rhetoric in MUN terms ultimately has to be positive, because success means having a resolution strengthened, improved and then passed.  Clapping is then in order.  Declarations of war and motions to evict a country are so not MUN.

Cheeringly, hearteningly, MUN is a great leveller because the USAs and Russias and Chinas are often out-researched, out-lobbied and out-debated by Chad, Rwanda or South Sudan, and that is recognised in the prize-giving which ends most MUN conferences.  In that respect, perhaps MUN is just a game after all.

All this can be done in a lunch hour.   It can be done in your classroom, or some classrooms and a lecture hall or school hall.  If your students get the bug, you can take them to a one-day MUN near you (lots have been introduced recently) or a three-day residential MUN like the ones at Haileybury, Cheadle Hulme or George Watson’s, Edinburgh.  If they really get the bug there are MUNs around the world in The Hague, or Geneva or New York or Hong Kong. There is an MUN Society at Bristol University and at lots of unis.  Needless to say, the CV and Personal Statement possibilities are rich.

If MUN doesn’t stretch and challenge your students, I can only say I’m sorry, but it has certainly done that for mine.  Most schools have a Mission Statement or Aims which talk about producing well-rounded, civilised students who are ready to join society with skills designed to make them confident citizens of the 21st century.  Or something along those lines.  MUN won’t do that on its own, but it will help, and it sure ain’t box-ticking.  If MUN gives this much fulfilment to lots of teachers I’ve known who commit hours to it, at weekends and after school, imagine how much good it’s doing on its own terms for the literally tens of thousands of students across the world who experience it.

MUN is independent learning.  It’s individual, it’s collaborative, it’s teamwork, it’s communication skills, it’s rule-based game-playing and it just works. For that, it’s worth putting out the flags.