It’s Monday morning and Year 6 at Pudsey Bolton Royd have just enjoyed breakfast together as part of the school’s Healthy Eating week. As they enter the classroom for their weekly askit session, there is a real sense of anticipation. The classroom is appropriately arranged to promote discussion – desks pushed back to the walls, chairs in a large circle so that no-one is excluded. Jane Howson, their class teacher sits alongside them and welcomes them to the session.
It is clear that the pupils know what to expect and how to be involved. The session always starts with a game or warm-up activity. Today they use the ‘fruit salad’ activity, changing places around the circle until they are all sitting next to someone other than their closest friends, encouraging them to talk and work with different people. Next is an activity to promote their concentration – trying to get everyone in the group on their feet without any two pupils standing up at the same time. The pupils know the drill and set the activity going themselves. The tension is quite palpable as the children observe their peers carefully, consider different tactics for ensuring success and sense responses and reactions. They are delighted when they complete the activity first time around.
Jane now reminds the class what they are trying to achieve – developing a Community of Enquiry in order to think more deeply, ask more questions that help them to discuss the issues raised. The significance of open rather than closed questioning is highlighted. Using a cup as the stimulus, the children quickly show their grasp of open and closed questions, such as:
“Who made it? When? Why this shape, colour and design? What’s its purpose? Who uses it?”
The questions follow thick and fast. The quick warm up stimulates their thinking and gets them ready for what is to follow.
This morning, the stimulus is a Yorkie Bar and the slogan ‘Not for girls’. This fits well with the school’s current food theme and immediately gets their interest. First thoughts are quickly followed by discussion in pairs and then in larger groups. Soon we have a range of questions which two of the pupils capture on the flipchart for further scrutiny and ‘the vote’. The questions cover a wide range of ideas:
“Is the Yorkie bar really not for girls or is it just an advertising gimmick? Did the person who designed the advertisement really not like girls very much? What gave the person the idea in the first place? Is it just a joke, are people taking it too seriously? Should people make jokes at others expense?”
Very quickly, the group vote for the question they would like to discuss further and they are off.
Now follows a most interesting 15 minutes during which the high level language and thinking skills become apparent. Discussion is animated and focused. The children demonstrate how well they are considering all the options being presented. Most importantly, they listen to their peers and respect each other’s viewpoints, even when clearly not agreeing with them. An interesting point comes when one of the pupils points out that they have all assumed that the creator of the Yorkie Bar advertisement was male; in the context of the discussion, a significant pattern of thought.
Throughout the entire session, pupils demonstrate interest, passion, determination, courtesy and respect for others, deep thinking skills, and the ability to make decisions and follow through a process. Within this context, the teacher’s role is finely tuned; supporting the process by occasionally adding a helpful question:
“Can you explain what you mean by that? How do we know that? Can you put it another way? Do you have any evidence for that?”
In this way, the children are skilfully helped to extend and clarify their thinking whilst maintaining their central position in the dialogue. As the discussion gets into full flow, Jane unobtrusively jots down some of the points down so that, if necessary she is able to remind them of what they said and the points they were trying to get across.
The hour flies by and soon it is time to bring the discussion to an end but everyone in the room is left with the feeling that the day has got off to a really good start; their minds and disposition engaged well for whatever comes next.
From a curriculum perspective, the pupils have been involved with literacy in all its forms – speaking and listening, writing and reading. But they have also been developing and practising all their social skills – working individually and in groups, respecting others viewpoints, making decisions, thinking carefully about their own viewpoint and the reasons behind it, taking responsibility for their opinions but also modifying them when they hear the views of others. Jane commented further:
“We deliberately place the askit session on a Monday morning because it helps to get the children focused again at the start of a new week. It provides them with a structured opportunity to talk, listen and make decisions about the focus of the first hour of the week. Most importantly, it makes a strong statement about the importance of their views and the views of others. Increasingly, the stimuli pick up on other things which are happening across the curriculum. The Yorkie Bar fitted with the food theme, but also supports the work we are doing about persuasive writing. On other occasions, we will pick up other themes – disability when visited by wheelchair basketball athletes for example, so increasingly learning is joined up and children can see the links across the range of learning activities that they will meet in any one week or half term.”
Jane has now been developing askit with the children for more than two years.
“It takes time to build the understanding and the skills. As a school, we still have circle time which is very much focused on personal development and feelings but in askit, our objective is to build a ‘community of enquiry’ which the children engage with whole-heartedly and in which they practise and develop a much wider range of skills. As a teacher, my role is to let the children take charge of the process but also support them so that they get the best out of it.”
At the end of the lesson, it is clear that the children have thoroughly enjoyed the start to their day. They are animated and pleased about their achievements and happy to have shared their experience with a visitor.