Let’s Think in English uses low floor and high ceiling activities that help to develop reasoning. One such task is central to the fourth lesson I explored with the Pakeman Year 6 class: ranking.
Pupils studied Eve Bunting’s “Terrible Things” which is an allegory of the Holocaust. However, we make one key intervention to the text before presenting it to the pupils, removing Eve Bunting’s introductory explanation of the message and context of the story.
In concrete preparation, pupils are provided with the text from the opening page but not the accompanying illustrations and asked to consider what type of text this might be. The opening paragraph is:
“The clearing in the woods was home to the small forest creatures. The birds and squirrels shared the trees. The rabbits and the porcupines shared the shade beneath the trees and the frogs and fish shared the cool brown waters of the forest pond. They were content.”
The Pakeman class quickly established it was likely to be fictional as animals were “sharing” and “content”. Some speculated that it could be a fairy tale recognising the “woods” and “animals” as conventions. A pupil shared the idea it was likely these animals would speak in the story as they already showed some human qualities like “sharing” and therefore this would not be unusual. Another group made the distinction, it could be “realistic fiction” suggesting that the animals could represent people in some way as they are showing human emotions. The language of logical deduction is emerging in the class as opinions are supported with textual evidence and this in turn leads to more developed deductions.
Following the concrete preparation, we read the complete story with accompanying illustrations. Then pupils were set a ranking activity to place the characters in order in terms of who is most to least to blame for what happens. Pupils were provided with the names of the characters on separate strips of paper and lay them out in terms of blame.
The pupils were highly engaged in the task and it’s becoming clear five lessons into the programme that their focus and motivation is moving away from trying to provide the teacher with an answer into one of intellectual enquiry. The groups are more inclusive and collaborative. In lesson one there tended to be an individual who would make the key decisions whereas now there is more of an attempt to pool and synthesise ideas. The volume and tone of their talk is more focused; they are listening attentively rather than being silent. There are non-verbal clues too: more eye contact, pupils are physically closer together and their facial expressions show interest. The individuals who were reluctant to voice opinions in lesson one are now engaged and immersed. More importantly these pupils appear happier.
Reasoning can be stimulated in many different ways in a classroom but asking pupils to rank a range of factors provides needed constraint, decision making and agency to return to the text. Typically, Year 6 pupils when ranking the characters from this story tend to place them in the following order:
- Terrible Things (they are the ones who take the creatures)
- Big Rabbit (he encourages the other characters to ignore what is happening and appears self-interested).
- The other animals in descending order depending on when they were taken so the Birds who are taken first are seen as the least to blame.
- Little Rabbit (is typically seen as innocent and warns the others)
However invariably some groups and individuals see the ranking differently. Pupils are presented with the first stage of conflict: to reconcile differences in their group. Again, differing opinions drive the pupils back to the text as they fine-comb for evidence to support their stance. In LTE it is not merely enough to have an opinion but it is important we critically evaluate the opinions shared, probing them and ensuring they stand up to scrutiny.
When scanning the different groups’ ranking before feedback, it was interesting to see how their orders varied. An advantage of asking pupils to visually rank in this way is it provides the teacher with a clear insight into the groups’ thought processes before taking feedback and they may consider the best order for feedback from groups. Most groups placed the creatures in a descending order as below:
Others opted for a different arrangement such as:
Taking feedback it makes sense to explore the common position of the majority of groups and establish the reasoning behind their choices before asking them the class to consider alternatives.
During visual ranking, the teacher can notice evolutions in reasoning as the order changes and can draw upon this in feedback e.g. “I noticed you had Little Rabbit at the bottom of your list to begin with but moved him up. What made you change your mind?” Teachers can also identify more subtle changes in thought processes and draw their attention to this to assist with metacognition. For example, drawing pupils’ awareness to the subtle change they make in their ranking below by adding a start and end point and asking them to consider why they made the change and how effective it is.
The pupils partook in a passionate and thoughtful debate and during the exchange of ideas Little Rabbit’s possible culpability became more evident. Through the ranking activity pupils were understanding and exploring Eve Bunting’s question: “If everyone had stood together at the first sign of evil would this have happened?” Pupils left the room considering this question in the light of the Holocaust but also considering its relevance to their world today.