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Let’s Think in English online?

Let’s Think online? A conversation with Myfanwy Edwards
by Leah Crawford

Let’s Think is a classroom intervention whose powerful ticking engine lies in the social construction of understanding. The safe, meaning making community that we work so hard to develop over time, is built on carefully mediated dialogic exchanges. Yet we know there are dimensions of communication beyond the words spoken: body language, eye-contact, tones of voice, the positioning and creation of groups, the sharing of resources.

Even on the return to live teaching in school in September 2020 there were additional challenges to teaching Let’s Think with restrictions on the seating, grouping and movement of students and teacher. Michael Walsh, LTE lead tutor helpfully blogged about ways we might manage these restrictions here.

Some schools have understandably felt that Let’s Think lessons will be on pause for the early Spring Term whilst we are teaching remotely. So, when I read on the Twitter grapevine that Myfanwy Edwards, English Subject Leader at the new Richmond Upon Thames School in Twickenham, would be continuing to teach Let’s Think in English remotely, this small case study felt like something worth capturing for the whole LT community. It’s a work in progress, but Myfanwy and I captured the story so far via a Zoom interview at the end of January.

So Myfanwy, let’s just set this in context. How long had you been teaching Let’s Think before you moved to your current subject leader role?

I taught LTE for 4 years at my previous school. I felt lucky that there was a core of us who were really committed to the programme and to continued teacher development. We were in and out of each other’s classrooms, observing and reflecting and adapting practice. I think this helped me to establish some key principles that I still believe in.

So what were those principles?

For me, they are the principles on which all good teaching of English is based and actually, we used them as principles for planning and teaching in the rest of our curriculum. The importance of talk for collaborative meaning making is foremost: it didn’t take much persuasion for me to believe in this. It’s strange now looking back, I started Let’s Think with a Year 7 group that first year and I took them all the way through to Year 10. Although we did not use the KS4 lessons, they were so well versed in how to build meaning together, they understood that English is not individualistic or competitive and that they would benefit from building understanding together, that it was so easy by Year 10 to just set a group task or question and I knew they would make something from it.

Now having done more training with my new department, the aspect that I did not fully grasp the first time around was the discipline of the Reasoning Patterns: having just one conceptual focus for each lesson. For every rich text in English there are so many angles you could take, but a Let’s Think lesson takes a disciplined route through one concept, yet still gives room for students’ own route to understanding this. I like the way that the Concrete Preparation section lays the ground-work for this direction in thinking, and offers you ways you can use in other lessons. I think I’ve particularly learned how introducing the context or even the author does not have to be at the start or before reading a text, but can be woven in later to add a new dimension to thinking. I like that sometimes context and author are not introduced at all and that lack of resolution keeps thinking open and bridgeable to the next context, like in ‘By the Sea.’ So I think overall, I like the disciplined, structured plan, but with enough flexibility for students to make their own meaning.

Another school of thought is to ask students what is of interest to them, what they notice in a text and work with this. I think if this is used in tandem with Let’s Think, the students learn how to use the freedom. So just last term, my Year 7s having worked though The Bridge introductory lesson, were confident in working through who was to blame for a tragedy in their set text, because they had internalised the process. That’s the metacognition principle. It really works if you plan that disciplined training, then an opportunity to reapply.

So my next question Myfanwy was around your decision to ask Michael Walsh to train the whole of your new department in September 2020, even though it could not be a face to face development day and had to be remote training on Zoom. I can extrapolate from what you’ve said that it was about the importance of collaborative meaning making, the disciplined training of reasoning, the metacognition and bridging to reapply that thinking. But why did you not wait until the training could be in person?

It was linked to the lockdown.

Kids had been sitting alone in a room, maybe talking to siblings or friends on social media, but nothing like the disciplined collaborative meaning making we manage in class, say around a poem. We felt we needed to retrain the students and I wanted to give the staff in my new department the structures and development and confidence to manage this. Michael is great, too, he helps you enter the programme on all sorts of levels: the pure cognitive growth angle, the democratic principle, the nature of literary making meaning. I’m interested in what students have to say.

So the way we have taught The Tempest with Year 7 remotely has shown that they know how to ask good questions of a text without the need for us as teachers to front load all sorts of colonial context. In fact, the main contextualising I did was to imagine what it would be like to be in a shipwreck. Then we read the opening scenes and they needed no prompting to ask why Prospero feels it is his right to be ruler of the island and that saving Ariel doesn’t necessarily give him that right. It then felt like a natural development to move to questions of Colonialism and slavery.

So it sounds like you were already seeing an impact on Year 7 from teaching Let’s Think in that 2020 autumn term?

Absolutely. The exchange of prior knowledge is so much more noticeable in pure mixed ability classes. I’ve done some recordings where you can hear the ripple in the Vygotskian shared ZPD! But also how quick they have been to become more aware of how they are reading and can reapply a process.

Did you hear teachers talk about their practice shifting?

Yes, I have a teacher with 11 years experience, who asked if we could adapt the whole Year 10 poetry GCSE unit using the principles of Let’s Think, interleaving some of the GCSE lessons with anthology poems, like the George the Poet and Blake lesson on London. I wondered if a more experienced teacher might be harder to convince but that wasn’t the case because she was so encouraged by the level of interest and understanding in the students’ responses. Then there is my reading co-ordinator who is using Let’s Think as a lens through which to view her teaching of A Christmas Carol for her MA, again because of the quality and independence of responses.

So there was enthusiasm, there was quite swift influence on the curriculum and teaching beyond Key Stage 3. But teaching Let’s Think via remote live contexts presents a whole new challenge: what made you want to continue?

I think if anything having to teach online has sharpened all of our principles. What is really important to us and how can we ensure that that still happens online? So, we have a focused teaching and learning department meeting every fortnight online. So far, we have discussed: How can we incorporate Assessment for Learning? How can we enable collaboration? and How can we include personal response? There is no point in having principles if they go out of the window as soon as they are challenged. So one of the most important things has been keeping the idea of the ‘third turn’ – avoiding the closed shop of teacher initiation, student response and teacher feedback, but instead folding student response back in to the thinking and further responses of the whole group.

That’s hard in the chat box, I’ve found, particularly when some students don’t have a microphone or are in a context where they can’t unmute and say more about their answer.

It is, but we have worked on us using the chat box comments to summarise where their thinking is, to make links between what students have said ‘So, Louis seems to be saying something similar to Ashton there.’ Then asking ‘Do you agree or disagree with that shared point’. It’s not the same, but they are contributing and it gives the sense of a conversation and a communal effort. You can also offer provocative statements related to the question to open up the level of contribution. The London, Blake and George the Poet lesson worked particularly well with Year 10. It was easier to do online with the video link, so that I could set this as an independent task – a breather – in between. We said, go away then post in the chat what you think. And that level of contribution feels even more important at the moment for student well-being. The idea of moving straight to an analytical paragraph, on your own with a grid to scaffold doesn’t feel right, when we could be asking: What do you think and feel about this?

So let’s just pause here for people who might be reading this and thinking of trialling a Let’s Think lesson online. You have mapped one lesson across two, to give thinking and reflection time?

Yes, so the London lesson was across two lessons. I will give them a screen break to reflect, then return and there is a shared Google doc with the text broken into sections and the student names in groups next to a section of the text, so they can add their thoughts on that section and begin to respond to each other. And I can nominate one student in each group to get ready, come off mic and summarise the group’s thoughts from what has been typed into the shared document, just as we would in a classroom Let’s Think. Another of my colleagues encouraged and gave the students time to text, phone, or Snapchat before entering group thoughts. I think that’s the reason I would most encourage other teachers to try Let’s Think, is that you are encouraging, you are making the space in the school day, for students to talk to each other about something rich and share what they think.

So the idea of walking away, or writing reflections between lessons might even be facilitated with shared software. I have experimented with Google Jamboard (an electronic post-it board) and with Padlet – which is available to everyone – where students can respond to each other’s posts like a dialogue string.

The important thing is we are locked down but not locked in. Our teaching is based on asking questions that matter and listening with genuine interest to the responses and using those to frame the next question. What’s interesting is that lockdown teaching has opened up another skill, if you like, of sharing and drafting more informal written responses in an exchange. Some students are actually more willing to do this than they are to talk. The interesting thing is going to be how confident they will be to talk with the same elaboration that they have in writing. I imagine it will take us some time to find that confidence again.

Yes, I think in post lockdown Autumn 2020, at least where I teach, we had more prevalence of extremes than we would normally. We had students who found it hard to ‘unmute’ and those who were overexcited by the communal context for learning again and offered too much too soon, without thinking. Is there anything else we should be mindful of as a difference teaching Let’s Think online?

Spoken interaction is multi-modal – not all responses are verbalised, we read body language and gestures. And when students do unmute to the whole class online, we hear everything they say and so do other classmates, so that small group drafting of ideas in a safe, small forum has been lost. We are simulating some sense of social construction, but it is different. I’m actually hoping that some of the elaboration I’ve had in informal writing will translate to greater confidence in writing in class. I think there may be some benefits. I even wonder if some will have thought harder about this poem I’ve put in front of them in a room at home with nothing else to think about than they would at school with all sorts of distractions.

There could be some silver linings…

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