Learning iterations and creativity

Learning Iterations at Uplands College

Alex Beard’s book, Natural Born Learners: Our Incredible Capacity to Learn and How We Can Harness It, is a zippy snapshot of innovative teaching strategies impacting education.

In the book, Beard travels the globe in search of learning’s magic elixir. His investigative journey saves the reader a fortune in COVID-19 tests alone, and his findings are so various, that their only commonality is that the processes of teaching and learning, the world over, are being reinvented. Uplands College in Mpumalanga is no different.

For some time we have been pondering the question, what should Grade 8 and 9 pupils really be learning? It seemed surprising that this question hadn’t been asked before, or more regularly, and the opportunities it has identified for us were plentiful.

For the heads of departments team, a blank canvas exercise followed the question: Be they academic or not, what skills, topics, and experiences are most necessary, or valuable, for pupils at this stage of their lives? Feedback from this team fell into five broad themes, and 2021 saw version 1.0 of us exploring them throughout our learning environment.

Theme one: A learning atmosphere centred on empathy and wellbeing

Not surprisingly, this theme topped all others.

Pupil wellbeing underpins their ability to learn; their physical, emotional and social needs simply needed more of our attention. For us, this means an intentional approach to the most basic foundations: a curriculum that addresses teen health and wellness with baseline physical fitness testing; information for pupils on sleep, nutrition, screen moderation; and the enrichment of their social-emotional learning (SEL) – adding age-appropriate topics and afternoon speaker slots for specialists in the SEL field as we go.

None of this seemed particularly revolutionary, but upon discussion, it did seem more pressing than in years past. Giving this theme priority seemed to invigorate a group of staff, namely the life orientation team, the school counsellor, the school’s pastoral care structures and the physical education team.

We immediately saw the benefits of reconfiguring a tutor system from vertical groups to grade ‘bubbles’, thereby giving staff a choice as to the age group they could mentor. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea to hand-hold homework, or to unpack school bags in search of elusive notes; the right people are especially needed in this junior role. The recent on-boarding of the wellness tracking app – ‘It’sOk’ – is on trial with our Grade 9s, and we will see if this helps to flag pupils for whom closer support is needed.

Dealing with a diverse cohort

With pupil wellbeing seemingly on track, what did we mean by an atmosphere of empathy, and would we risk ‘babying’ our pupils too much? Uplands attracts pupils from throughout the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region – pupils from international schools, from our own independent feeder Uplands Preparatory School, and from all tiers of local schools, as well as bursary recipients from the humblest of disadvantaged backgrounds. We cannot assume that these pupils arrive with a shared skillset or common foundational knowledge. A key objective for us is to bolster the learning ability of all these fledglings, and provide a level academic playing field for such a diverse cohort.

We hoped that mandatory use of a termly school diary – the design of which has evolved through three iterations this year alone, after feedback from pupils – would instil the planning skills that mitigate stress in teens’ lives. It has been interesting to note how so many pupils reject this tool, insisting rather that their cell phone (which is banned during class time) is still a better planning instrument. In other words, just send the organised kid who uses a diary, a text message? Can it really be this difficult to get adolescents to diarise, or are we not hearing them?

Diverse cohort at Uplands College

An assessment experiment

An experiment we have elected to keep practising has been providing certain texts used for assessments to pupils in advance. These sources would traditionally have been ‘unseen’, in first and second language contexts, such as comprehension passages or visual literacy sources. Giving pupils the opportunity to look up new vocabulary or idioms, to contextualise the material with supportive video clips, or to try to unpack the more subtle intentions of the text, has given every pupil a fair opportunity to perform to their ability. Class time given to this preparation is pupil-led. It is not an opportunity to coach for the test.

This approach has allowed us to ask higher order questions that we wouldn’t normally include in a junior level unseen text assessment, thus pushing pupils to think in ways that challenge and stretch them and also showing them the value of broader reading or general knowledge that underpins all texts.

While some pupils have made good use of these opportunities, preparing carefully and with intent to learn, others have relied on their previous success and come unstuck. Those who prepare in collaborative teams, as opposed to each one on his or her own, also tend to benefit more, as their discussions evoke the Socratic method where ideas are tested and refined.

An approach like this (supplying texts in advance) is founded on empathy: it reduces testing stress and anxiety; it rewards good preparation and good organisation, rather than innate ability bestowed by chance or socio-economic privilege. The message it sends about self-efficacy is so important. It says to pupils, ‘We recognise that you don’t share a common understanding, but here is a chance to bridge the gaps that may exist.’ It puts the focus of assessment squarely where it belongs: how can you apply what you have learnt?

A downside to this approach has been the emergence of real market value for high quality notes, on sale, before the test. Splendid to see the entrepreneurial spirit in action, but buying effective study tools defeats the purpose entirely. Perhaps it was just an innocent misunderstanding: when we said, ‘by all means collaborate’, they heard ‘by all available means exploit the studious and ideally, where possible, be the middleman.’ It’s possible.

Still, this approach could potentially be adopted in any subject that uses ‘unseen’ source material for assessing and as one pupil told me after the test, “I have learnt so much more in this process, Sir.’ I bet you have!

Vocabulary journals and small mark allocations

There are many pupils at Uplands for whom English is not their mother tongue. Growing vocabularies is vital for their communication, comprehension and confidence, hence the ‘vocab journals’ (an A5 hardcover) that pupils should expand every week – new words explained and paired to a second language synonym. Neuroscience supports this practice – the more connections between neurons, the better. In time, this journal could take its place as a welcome learning aid to any assessment, again rewarding the student who grows, who seeks and who creates effective learning systems.

We want a learning culture where this journal is a mandatory item on every desk, as routine as the pencil box or learning device. These journals are peer-assessed for a formal mark each term, which enables each student to note how compliance is no match for genuine curiosity.

Small mark allocations during a term for organisation (file inspection, having resources at the ready in class), punctuality (for lessons, for deadlines) can stir debate in the staffroom. These scores are not rigorous, but they are a clear message of what we deem to be valuable, and what we believe will best serve young people over time. In the marketplace, can we put a price on service delivery that is well organised and punctual?

More empathy naturally requires us to consider causes of pupil stress. Examinations can be a big deal for Grade 8s: the horror of a ticking clock counting down a two-hour paper. In the past, we have routinely observed Grade 8s who don’t complete examinations in time; their results then reflecting a missing skill such as reading or processing speed rather than their extent of subject or concept mastery. With this in mind, it was proposed that assessments are learning opportunities that should be completed by every pupil. At this age, is it more important that a pupil completes an assessment than whether they have adhered to the time limit? Not everyone agrees on this. When it matters, I am inclined to pay the expert a little more for a job done properly.

Where should schools stand between expediency and quality?

Giving pupils the chance to work through examination papers weeks later with a reflection at the end, proved valuable. It was no longer a hunt for missing marks, but a chance to revisit what was misunderstood. Neuroscience suggests that revisiting prior learning, some weeks or even months later, is an effective way of retaining that learning – called ‘spaced repetition’ in academic terminology.

In a spirit of both empathy and ingenuity, one innovative teacher designed an examination paper rich with visual prompts to help students recall learning. Her paper invited pupils to complete preparatory exercises (that took a minute or two) before tackling the actual examination questions. This meant her paper was marginally shorter than previous years, but it has shifted her intention in assessment towards pupil success, towards warmth and even playfulness, rather than traditional cold rigour. There is absolutely no reason for assessment in this phase to resemble the matric examination.

Greater empathy shifts our purpose. When the primary objective is learning, rather than assessing, established norms begin to waver. Pupils that work in pairs for assessments develop co-operative rather than competitive behaviours. Quizzes that allow second or multiple attempts are not an online circus, they are an immediate feedback loop that may consolidate or clarify learning. Dare I say that Uplands pupils are enjoying assessment and value the chance to work together if they would like to?

How many times do teenagers need to ask us if school could just be a little more fun? Empathy is not a shoulder to cry on, it is an actively receptive mind and a willingness on our part to evolve, or to lighten up.

Tim Ferris’s splendid Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers is a self-help cheat sheet for modernity. We explored his ideas in a life orientation examination we called The Teenage Survival Kit – inviting pupils to craft punchy life hacks for their peers. The Grade 8s, for example, presented on the importance of routines, navigating issues of diversity, study methods that work, and strategies for coping with stress management.

Rather than us preaching lifestyle sermons at teens, they can find and package the same message in language and contexts that resonate with them. They may even be converted and adopt what they hear as best practice.

Tasks like these also allow for genuine peer evaluation, for them to question: how valuable was this process and life hack information to us? It is up to us to find wider value in pupil work, beyond just using the lens of teachers as exclusive adjudicators of quality. When we do this, we are exercising empathy, because we are saying to pupils that their effort has greater value than the mark ascribed to it. It matters to people.

So this is our foundation, theme one: an explicit wellbeing curriculum and a learning atmosphere of empathy where learning design recognises both pupil and teacher objectives.

Exposure to issues and broader awareness

Theme two: An opportunity for exploration, exposure and broader awareness

As educators, we would have all observed how certain pupils who struggle academically in Grades 8 and 9 can make significant progress from Grade 10 onwards, as if they have turned over a new leaf. Perhaps it is due to maturity, or narrowing their focus to areas of strength and preference.

Either way, the junior grades are not reliable predictors of future success, but eliciting individual interest in a field is. So, this phase of schooling is a ripe moment for us to relax rigidity and to provide a season of exploration for our pupils.

At Uplands, Grade 8 classes spend a full term immersed in each of the disciplines of dance, drama, art and music, experiencing both the practical (performance) and theoretical components. They also have two terms of civil technology, and a term each of information technology (IT) coding and computer applications technology (CAT). Exposure to these diverse learning areas informs their future learning choices and opens doors to new potential interests.

These subjects also lend themselves well to project based learning (PBL) or sustained learning processes, enabling tangible finished products such as scale models or group performances. We cannot hope to instil or develop creativity without giving pupils the scope and the arena in which to exercise it.

Further to this idea of creative exploration, narrative writing is being more intentionally taught at Uplands, as an unfolding expedition of the expressive mind. There is a sense of weight being given to the process rather than the outcome. One pupil reflected that this unhurried opportunity gave him the chance to ‘travel the roads of my vast imagination’ and another reported, ‘I want to write a novel that moves people’. There is an inherent joy in gradually crafting something original, conjuring it from the cosmos of our consciousness.

A spirit of exploration and expanding one’s awareness are closely linked. How magnifique to know that the French examination included a section called civilization in which pupils had to show their knowledge of current French culture and politics – from francophone Africa to Emmanuel Macron. The message to pupils here is apt: we are not learning in a vacuum.

When the French Revolution was studied in human and social sciences (HSS), pupils were tasked to compare it to a modern movement prevalent in the world today. To see pupils making connections between this historic uprising and #FeesMustFall, or #MeToo, or the BLM movement , was exciting. On this experience one pupil reflected, ‘Learning about this fascinated and shocked me; I want to know more about world problems and even try to find solutions to them.

The oft-touted myth that teenagers today don’t read is tripe. It’s convenient, and used ubiquitously because it absolves us as teachers of any accountability for the dire state of general knowledge in pupils. When we guide pupils in their reading choices, provide lessons for reading, and create opportunities for book discussion, the myth is exposed.

It is a pure delight to give one pupil the novel The Help and another the sport or business biography about their idol, because in both, they are going to discover a new reality and expand their own empathy and perspective. Our goal is cultivating broader awareness, not literature analysis. And getting pupils to read is not just the job of the English teacher. A bookshelf in every classroom, stacked with that teacher’s favourites, is all it takes.

A reading culture is certainly emerging when the life science department prescribes books for Grade 11s, and they are devoured (the books, I mean). Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade, Golden Boy: A Novel (exploring genetics and sex-selection by parents) and Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants have all proven to be rich additions to learning.

Probing reads like these, supplemented with Netflix’s Explained series , plus a few pertinent podcasts, articles, or documentaries – all collated into a voluntary Google Classroom – combine to form another learning environment all together, tailor-made for pupils who want to dive deeply. Some Uplands alumni contribute to such digital hubs, sharing their tertiary knowledge and inspiring our budding biologists.

So this is theme two for us: a learning atmosphere that encourages discovery, expansion of self, and the connecting of one’s newfound knowledge to a broader ever-expanding context.

Theme three: Engage pupils’ heads, hearts and hands

In Creating Cultures of Thinking , Harvard researcher Ron Ritchhart describes classrooms that are microcosms of real world disciplines. In such spaces, young people are not doing mundane schoolwork, but are rather immersing themselves in a field, in its quirky practitioners’ habits and mind sets. They may be testing hypotheses like inquisitive scientists, or weighing the truth of Trumpisms as social media moderators, or bleeding original artworks like possessed performers. How liberating to be that specialist or expert for a period of time!

Ritchhart dares teachers to create the learning atmosphere (a flavoursome physical space) and to set targets that invite the intrinsic skills, behaviours and dispositions of actual practitioners. His invitation is inspiring because this sort of learning environment is sensory and emotional – it transcends the cognitive and engages one’s entire being.

When our Grade 8s spend two weeks in English writing unique feature articles, they are autonomous with regard to how they use their class time. They have license to roam. The end goal requires online research which must be paraphrased or quoted and properly referenced – a process that seems tedious, pedantic and dry for them, yet that is how it is done in the field. They must then prepare for, schedule, and conduct, face-to-face interviews with peers or adult experts, and this step becomes exactly what Ritchhart intends: an encounter that is nerve-wracking, unpredictable and experiential.

Deep breaths before interviewing the college head on how she manages stress; much excitement and trepidation before posing deep questions about gender or identity to a selection of diverse peers. Suddenly our teens are feeling like and behaving like writers, like researchers, and the academic purpose fades behind an immediate and authentic process. In a short reflection after her interview experience, one pupil said, ‘I wish I had prepared richer questions so that our conversation was longer and deeper’.

Hands on learning in attentive union

To engage the whole person, we want to be more hands-on, more often. In the sciences, this approach has meant the rearranging of the curriculum and the provision of more laboratory learning. It’s not always convenient, because we don’t have a laboratory for every class. An efficient, proactive laboratory assistant is vital. How invigorating though to enter this space and see all eyes squinting at a test tube, bodies bent over to liquid level, and as the dropper is raised… plop! Fizz!

We are never too old to calculate the speed of a toy car, and the occasional crash is obligatory. One pupil comment about hands-on science sums it up: ‘We usually don’t get to do this alone; we had all the proper equipment and everything; I have decided I want to be in the science field and help the Earth, before it is too late.

These hands-on lessons not only become the standout memories of pupils but should deepen their understanding. After spending two lessons in HSS making hats – one lesson making a personal masterpiece (as the artisan), and one as a mindless repetitive cog in a production line (the Industrial Revolution) – pupils reflected on so many learning points: gratitude for their freedom from child labour; a genuine appreciation for the experience, the shift in teaching style, and what it perfectly illustrated; and a cheeky request to rather make shoes next time!

This brings to mind the work of Greg McKeown, podcaster and writer of Essentialism and Effortless, who would ask us: what would learning and teaching look like if it was effortless? He would not suggest we take the grit and grunt out of the classroom, absolutely not, but what of heads, hearts and hands working in attentive union? It can feel, it can be, effortless, right?

Our findings from this approach are that learning takes longer; less content is covered, and at examination time we are sometimes wondering where the time went. Sceptics will rightfully ask, what are the valid trade-offs for this loss? What are pupils actually gaining?

Will doubters accept an answer that pupils are more interested? More happy? More inclined to learn independently? Are they swayed when we say that pupils are learning ‘habits of success’, ‘habits of mind’, or what we at Uplands call Upskills – traits that will bolster them for the rest of their lives – through processes that are no longer monotonous or soulless? Will eyebrows be raised to the response, ‘Our pupils are being creative’? Aah, sweet, they are writing their own poems… yes they are, and after doing so one gangly teen noted, ‘Writing a poem really got my creative juices flowing… instead of being cooped up in your box, jump out!

How pointless to teach visual literacy skills if pupils are not invited to create a portfolio of their own meaningful photographs, or not dared to craft their own silent horror films and then enjoy them together in a darkened theatre with whoops and shrieks.

To the naysayer who laments, how will they ever be ready for matric?, another answer is… well, a number of pupils won’t choose your subject frankly, and those who do will be genuinely interested, (you’re welcome); and they do have three more years, better learning skills and a more mature brain, to get it. Will that suffice?

We know that full engagement nullifies the need for compliance. We know that in order to reach and to acknowledge the pounding teenage heart, we should give task choices, we should strive to link learning to our fascinating world, and show that what we are doing is relevant in students’ actual lives.

So this is our third theme: learning that is sensory and immersive; learning that appears effortless, because pupils are doing something stimulating in the full, sensual joy of the word.

A fresh approach to Grade 8 learning

Theme four: Instil diverse thinking and learning strategies

A question we are asking ourselves at Uplands is how do we teach properly now, so that learning lasts? How soul destroying it is when enlightenment seemingly vanishes after the test and a lesson’s kick-starter question is met by blank stares. What happened to their prior learning?

This is a tough one. We know from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams how critical sleep is for learning. Growing children also require protein, and some, an afternoon nap (me too) for the brain to complete its miraculous and ingenious neurological work. Educators, particularly in South Africa, ignore global trends to start the school day later; many pupils arrive at school without eating properly and there is slim chance of a siesta delaying the co-curricular programme.

A possible shift is to intentionally rethink feedback: make it more personal and timeous, preferably during lessons, preferably during the learning process, when it can readily be applied.
For pupils to develop a range of thinking strategies they need to first make their own thinking visible to us, or to one another. Small discussion groups are the nurseries for better thinking – everyone has a chance to talk, every idea is heard, considered or critiqued. They are safe spaces for mistakes. They are social spaces.

There should, after all, be no learning without thinking.

We want pupils practising skills in class, getting immediate feedback, processing it and adjusting their approach. This requires junior teachers who are accustomed to walking the desk rows, to checking short formative tasks frequently, and who like the role of coach rather than professor emeritus.

Projects must be done in class where we can observe and guide pupils along the way, sparking better thinking with our questions and prompting pupils to better performance. In every conversation we want to be candid. By the time we get to the summative point of assessment, carefully worded feedback is too often muted by the all-important mark. It’s better replaced with pupil reflection.

Strategically, in these grades, we want to lower the volume on marks and make some noise about individual progress, about pupil initiative or curiosity, and about growth in our 10 Upskills which encapsulate a capable learner and a global citizen. At the end of term, pupil reflections should focus on these vital criteria, rather than marks; tutor report comments too. In time our subject teachers will be more comfortable reporting this way as well.

Blended learning tools enable independence

Our natural science team has continuously expanded its repertoire of blended learning tools. The benefit of these, such as HyperDocs, is not just that they enable the delivery of self-paced, multimedia-rich learning, but rather that they expose pupils to new ways of learning – processes that serve in class or online learning equally well – and when used correctly, these digital platforms can provide a novel template for how pupils organise their own knowledge and shape their own unique learning paths.

When the same department tasked Grade 9s to design and build nanobot models to combat the Coronavirus, the emphasis was on a novel way of learning and thinking, not the patenting of a prototype. Coding classes created unique chatbots for a purpose of their own choosing. How refreshing that there isn’t a single right answer to these activities. The design thinking and sequential thinking that drives them is where the true value lies and this ability is the transferable skill that should evolve each time it is summoned.

More and more we are trying to design learning that gives pupils the independence they crave and that also frees the teacher for one-on-one support or for stimulating those who are forging ahead. Building subject websites that are now complete with video lessons for the entire year, has allowed some pupils to accelerate, such as in mathematics. When every resource is available in advance, there are those pupils with little need for the instructor. It is high time we got out of their way and played the mentor role.

So this is theme four: no learning without thinking; no more spoon-feeding; ongoing personal feedback to visible thinking; and blended learning design that encourages independence and novel thinking strategies.

Visible thinking at Uplands COllege

Theme five: One connected learning community

This is an area of growth for us at Uplands. As teachers who usually operate in silos, we are starting to converse and be more aware of what each of us is doing, but we need simpler systems for sharing information that leads to synergies and richer learning. It is an expectation at our school that all teachers observe two lessons per term, in preferably a subject they do not teach.

Another opportunity to learn from one another is when we watch our own colleagues’ pre-recorded lessons; it is humbling. In many respects a new standard of excellence was set during lockdown learning and a more effective pedagogy for the ‘glass generation’ in front of us began.

Exploring World War 1 in HSS and English provided a chance to share texts and work in a new staff team. The compelling film ‘1917’ provided a visual stimulus for teaching filmic techniques, stills analysis and a letter of condolence. The HSS team also focused on Sam Mendes’ remarkable set design, his depiction of trench warfare and the terror of battle. We want more learning like this, where topics traverse subject boundaries. Texts like poetry, first account sources and cartoons of the time, all inform a more synchronised, and layered learning segment.

Collectively, we are on a path to reduce assessment pressure and its associated stress, and replace this with learning that enlivens our pupils. As a result of our approach, innovative teachers have put their hands up to lead their subject in this junior phase and that’s precisely what we want. These are teachers who already like to connect with colleagues and work together.

Admittedly, sometimes innovation is easier to realise in larger department teams. But what of a single-teacher department? When the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) expanded its senior drama curriculum, our teacher’s response was to source a bespoke online course in screen-writing for pupils, expertly coached by a Netflix filmmaker. This online solution models the future of learning: give pupils direct access to gurus.

We may be subject theory experts, but we are compelled to be avid followers of our evolving fields. Students intuitively know when our resources reflect the world as it is today. Last term’s notes, good enough to cut the mustard then, may not be as relevant anymore; last year’s resources may belong in the bin. Our propensity to connect with a wider learning community beyond ourselves, beyond our borders, beyond our industry, will propel us and our pupils forward.

Parents and peers also wellsprings of learning

Our parent body is another wellspring of learning. One Uplands teacher has taken to inviting parents or special guests to her classroom, to share a message with pupils. At times the message aligns to academics and other times it doesn’t. But she has chosen each visitor because of the relevance of their message to this age group. How liberating to have this flexibility.

Alumni can contribute to this as well. Rather than a commemorative sculpture somewhere on the campus, each matric group could rather donate personally inscribed books to the library, or plant a tree in the indigenous matric forest that is a living learning space.

The other obvious learning community hiding in plain sight is our own pupils. When the Grade 8s study the fantasy novel The Hobbit, it is a crash course in confidence building. Who better than the timid and reluctant Bilbo Baggins to introduce pupils to a growth mind set, to awaken their own latent Tookish genes and to stir their blood for an act of calculated courage?

In the much-anticipated Bilbo Baggins Speech, pupils are dared to face something daunting in their lives and to then tell the class their story. For some, it is the prompt they needed to address hurtful family dynamics, or to end unwanted habits. Some have addressed toxic relationships, stretched their skillset, or asked loved ones unmentionable questions.

One young woman faced her fear of shopping alone, in defiance of the routine sexual harassment she knows awaits her in public places. To hear that 14-year-old girls are harassed by adult men in store aisles, reveals a side to teenage life that teachers won’t ordinarily know. So storytelling is impactful and memorable; there is a craft to it that is worth practising, and when there is substance to a story it provides a lesson from which we can all learn.

Making meaningful changes

While our new approach at Uplands is not revolutionary, it allows us to loosen certain constraints, and it has given us enough impetus and flexibility to make meaningful changes.

We did not experience resistance from our parents and those who chose to respond to our new approaches, expressed an interesting range of feelings, from relief, to delight, to emphatic endorsement. Some suggested further ideas.

We continue to meet twice a term in small teaching teams to bring this approach to life and to keep up momentum. Scattered between the predictable staffroom talk of dress codes or workloads or demanding parents, there is also sporadic banter about learning, about something that worked, or something different in the pipeline. Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s headquarters with the intent of planned collisions of co-workers, deliberate meetings of minds at the water fountain. We want this kind of banter about learning to continue to bubble. We want to continue to collide.

It’s an exciting time, and iteration 2.0 in 2022 beckons.