We all know learning is impossible without mistakes, but how do you help your students understand the process of learning? Cathy Metcalf, Year 5 teacher at St Mary's RC Primary School, outlines the five stages of the “Learning Pit” approach – highlighting particular benefits and challenges for more able learners along the way…

“It is better to know how to learn than to know.” – Dr Seuss

As part of my own professional learning, I recently completed the Masters in Educational Practice at Cardiff University. We were challenged to consider an aspect of our teaching which we felt needed development, and devise an action research project to carry out with our own classes.

My research focused on developing the reasoning skills required for a child to “get started” with a mathematical problem. I designed a series of six lessons which would focus specifically on reasoning questions, and allow learners to progress relatively quickly from solving simple sums to tackling complex, multi-step algebraic problems. The main teaching strategies were based on bar modelling (Singapore Maths) and there would be a scaffold in place for metacognitive thinking and talk as the learners worked.

As I began to implement this intervention, I realised that the children struggled to articulate their thinking, or the progress they had or had not made towards solving a problem. The previous year I had been part of a metacognition professional learning community (PLC), and I returned to the reading I had completed on the “Learning Pit” approach developed by James Nottingham. Could this pictorial representation of the process of learning help my pupils to better understand their own thinking? Could we devise a shared language around metacognitive skills which could be applied to all learners, particularly our highest-achieving more able pupils? Furthermore, would learners begin to recognise the emotions which we experience as we move through a process of deep learning?

Stage 1: Challenge

Providing opportunities within our teaching for the children to feel challenged, puzzled, intrigued and even confused is the initial starting point for a Learning Pit lesson. Nottingham refers to the “cognitive conflict” or “wobble” that we experience when two conflicting pieces of information or experiences meet in our minds. We are forced to wonder and question, and where for some learners this can be intimidating, more able learners are usually excited by the prospect – particularly if it could include proving their teacher wrong! Open-ended tasks and questions are an essential part of the classroom culture.

Stage 2: Struggle

The “fall” into the pit is the most challenging part of learning. When faced with a seemingly impossible task, our pupils often feel like giving up, that the task is just too big or too difficult. However, the wise teacher will have pitched the task right at the edge of the learners’ zone of proximal development (ZPD). The Learning Pit helps children to recognise these emotions as a difficult but essential part of the process, to accept them, even embrace them… and then start digging. For more able learners, this can be the most challenging stage to get through, as many will have had little experience of academic struggle throughout their school lives. It can also be useful for teachers to model the process of “failing”, and even express the emotions of despair and annoyance at becoming “stuck” in the pit.

Stage 3: Deep learning

Once the learners begin to move, the process of deep learning can begin. Drawing upon their prior knowledge, making links to a similar situation and choosing and using classroom resources effectively are all metacognitive skills which come into play during this process. It can be useful for more able learners to articulate the progress they have made through mini plenaries or jottings in a learning journal. This also allows the teacher to revisit the learning process with pupils after completing a task, and reflect upon the success of their learning journey, rather than just the academic output.

Stage 4: Resilience and cooperation

Although the process of deep learning has now begun, learners will begin to understand that the journey out of the pit can be long, difficult and may even involve a few slides back down! It is here that they live out the qualities of a growth mindset, learning to “dig in”, persevere, learn and adapt from their mistakes. It is also through this stage that learners can help each other – offering advice to peers, asking questions or seeking support from each other as they make progress towards a solution. This crucial social constructivism (Vygotsky) can be especially beneficial for more able learners, some of who struggle to relate to their peers on an academic level.

Stage 5: Eureka!

The moment a problem clicks into place and a solution appears is a success that all children (and adults) want to feel. This success, whether individual or as a shared experience with a friend or classmate, is felt at a much deeper level when the struggle of learning has been truly experienced. A memory of a boy in my maths lesson who leapt out of his seat, punched the air and shouted “Yes!!!” as he solved a tricky reasoning problem exemplifies for me the power and success of the Learning Pit. Ultimately, this “eureka” moment acts as the catalyst to spur a learner on into their next “pit” of learning and challenge.

Cathy Metcalf is a Year 5 teacher and expressive arts lead at St Mary's RC Primary School, a large, Catholic primary school in South Wales. Having completed a music degree at Cardiff University, she worked for several years in theatre, as a professional musician and as an instrumental tutor, gaining her PGCE through the Open University in 2013. She has always been interested in lifelong learning, and believes this is essential for teachers in order to understand the thoughts, feelings and needs of their students. This year, Cathy will be one of the first wave of participants in the new more able and talented research initiative launched by NACE in collaboration with Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Have you used the Learning Pit approach? What other strategies do you use to ensure learners are challenged? Contact us to share your experience.
Monday, October 8, 2018