Extreme Learning – claims for competence

 Our Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) met yesterday for the second session on Learning and Teaching.  As I explained earlier this week we focussed upon Extreme Learning and experimented with the process and explored possible assessment models.

Reading the feedback it would appear that responses to the session are something of a curate’s egg – some people loved it and others felt confused and possibly exploited.

What did we do?

I introduced the session by reminding them of the purpose and rationale behind Extreme Learning. I then suggested that in they would hopefully gain something which they might employ in their own teaching – and not necessarily through using Extreme Learning.

It was a fine line to tread between giving the groups too much direction – which would result in uniformity of response – and enough direction so that they were clear about what they had to do.  The truth is – as I explained – that this was an experiment – where we were the participant researchers.

Each group (4/5 people) – which was cross sectoral – and had an observer who acted as the ‘metacognition’ for the group – was to select a research question and then provide an outline of how they would tackle this task if it were an Extreme Learning Project.  The groups had flip charts, pens and bluetack but no accesss to computers or any other resources.

In the introduction I explained how the four capacities would act a framework for the process – “we need to “do” some of these things in the course of our project”.  I also reinforced the point about Intellectual Challenge and the need for depth and breadth within their project. The teams had 90 minutes to complete the task before they posted their work on the walls.  I told the group we would be looking at assessment at the end of the 90 minutes but that assessment would focus upon the four capacities and the intellectual challenge.


How did we do?

It was apparent that they actually needed much more guidance than I had given about the way in which to construct a good research question.

The groups also needed more guidance about the assessment fromat – which we couldn’t do as it was to emerge as part of the process.

Some groups selected questions which were about education – such as transition from primary to secondary – this confused the issue as they were looking at how they could develop the four capacities as part of transition, yet the purpose of the project was to develop the four capacities in the writer of the project (through through the project process) – if you can follow that?

We proved that this paper-based approach towards starting an Extreme Learning Project can work – it is not dependent upon access to technology.

It was fascinating to see how the afternoon group did in  comparison to the morning groups – simply down to the fact that there were models on the wall which gave them an insight in to the task- the morning group were working blind.



How did we assess?

At the end of the 90 minutes the groups were asked to go round the room and reflect upon the other projects.

Using reference to the four capacities and intellectual challenge – they were asked to rank their own performance in relation to their peers (not to rank their peers), for example – “we ranked ourselves 3rd out of 9”.

They were also asked to identify three things they might do next time to improve their project.


What did we learn?

People who are going to try Extreme Learning projects would benefit from doing some sort of paper-based group exercise in the first instance.

There must be clear guidance – preferably with modelling – of what a ‘good’ research question looks like; how the project is to be assessed – they can’t go in blind which is what the NQTs really did.

Having access to exemplars – such as those around the walls – is of enromous benefit to the learning process – the on-line access of projects would facilitate this.

It emerged – particularly in the afternoon session that there might be an parallel between what NQTs have to do to gain ‘full registration with Genaral Teaching Council, Scotland, and assessing the four capacities.  The idea of “claims for competence” is a powerful one.

In other words, lets say I do a project – and I know that something I’m doing in the course of the project – let’s say intervewing old people at an old people’s home – links with being a confident individual and successful learner – I can make a “claim for competence” in that area.  My project provides the evidence partiucularl;y if my claim can be validated by peers and otheres (teachers, adults).

Intellectual Challenge was weell accepted by the group and it became apparent that many of the projects did not facilitate ‘depth’ in any way until it a suggested that this might be an isssue.  It was at this point that some groups said “well we could dig down into this particular aspect” – and that would appear to be the answer – depth does not need to be uniform within a project – but can be a specific focus within a broad peice of work.

“But what about plagiarism?” – I didn’t think this would be an issue oi we could focus upon the importance of the projects being about developing skills and knowledge and not the summative result.  If we can highlight that the only person to suffer by copying huge tracts of texts from other sources is the person doing the project then we would have made real progress.  Similarly the project which gets “done” by the parent would be thing of the past – however a child and parent could work together in a productive way but with the focus being on developing the four capacities of the learner.

Having access to on-line “real’ projects has enormous potential in providing a real Zone of Proximal Development which would engage and encourage learners to raise their ambitions and aspirations for their own work


The secondary school curriculm was highlighted as being too full to do anything like this.

“What about exam results- we can’t take risks like this” – what have we got to lose?- was my response.  The evidence from the recent cross-sectoral shadowing make disturbing reading – with both primary and secondary NQTs being amazed at the general levels of disengagement of secondary pupils in comarison to their younger peers – and that disengagement being directly related to what children are being asked to do in class and the structure of the curriculum.

“So many secondary teachers see Cuirriculum for Excellence to be another thing they have to add on to the curriculum as opposed to being enbedded within their practice” – perhaps the “claim for competence” approach has some merit here? – for example – if I’m teaching a lesson and I know that it will make certain demands oin the childernw chin  relate to the four capcities then I just need to be aware of this and don’t need to change anything. However, there may be other capacities which I never develop in my classroom because I don’t provide these sorts of opportunities through my teaching – the answer lies not in changing the curriculum but in how I structure the learnig process!!

“What about lack of access to ICT?” – we showed during the session that ICT is not necessary – ICT is only 5% of extreme Learning yet it holds the key to the ZPD, modelling and portfolio concepts. Most of the work can be done at home to follow up on the planning and dialogue which can take place at home. We need to explore how we support those few children who don’t have ICT assess at home.

“Would all the curriculum be delivered this way?” absolutely not – we must have a focus upon Disciplinary learning in our schools as well as process but some of the lessons for teachers in implementing Extreme Learning will undoubtedly lead to  changes in the way that even disciplinary learning takes place.

In understand the frustration of some of the NQTs who came along to the session expecting to be given something in terms of new information. Perhaps that’s the reality of Extreme Learning – it changes the relationship between teacher and learner in a fundamental way.

I am indebted to the positive way in which everyone engaged with the task on Thursday – I can only apologise if you felt exploited – that was certainly not our intention.


Extreme Learning – another step?


Apologies if this post seems a bit disconnected – I’ll try to tidy it up later.

On Thursday we’re holding the last of our Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) support programme.

This will be a follow up to the session I led in October.

My plan is to focus upon Extreme Learning by splitting up the group into teams of 5/6.  Each team will be asked to complete an Extreme Learning project in 75 minutes.  One of the team will act as an observer – taking the role of “metacognition” by taking notes on the process , the problems they encounter and how they solved them.

Following completion we are going to try something which might be an assessment method with some potential.

I would contend that all summative assessment is “norm referenced” in that even “criterion referenced” assessment takes account of  the standards of the larger group – i.e. if the overall standards of the large group improve the criteria used to describe high standards performance will change – e.g. if 90% of pupils started to gain an ‘A’ in Higher English the criteria for an ‘A’ pass would change.

In other words we rely on comparison to understand and measure our performance – we do it all the time in our day-to-day lives without recourse to criteria descriptors.

Our idea is that the way to judge Extreme Learning success is to reflect upon other projects.  David Gilmour came up with an interesting example – he was in an adult art class where the teacher would regularly tell the class to take a break and go round the class and look at other people’s work. In this way people began to see standards and reflect upon how they can improve their own work.

The problem with most forms of assessment is that it’s private – how do I ever see what gets an ‘A” unless the teacher copies a paper – but that’s just one version of success – perhaps there other ways to perform at a high level.

I was looking today at the very interesting assessment maps provided by the Victorian Essential Learning Standards which have influenced the levels of performance in A Curriculum for Excellence – but boy are they dull!!!

The question which I was left with was is there any alternative? – particularly for our Extreme Learning Projects which will depend upon formative assessment – but still need some means of establishing standards for learners to aspire and judge their progress and next steps.

The beauty of on-line projects is that they are public – it’s this open access to other learners’ work that gives us an opportunity to explore a different methodology.

So what is we could identify different projects with various levels of performance which is self-assessed but externally validated by other learners and teachers.

Let’s imagine I’m a learner who wants to do a project on Formula One cars and I explore this through the research question – “Why is one F1 racing car faster than another?”  I complete my on-line project with reference to maths, technology, design and history. When it comes to assessing my project I start to look for other projects which have also covered these areas – although perhaps not all in the same project.  In this way I can begin to see levels of performance which are lower than mine, the same and perhaps higher.

Using these other projects as benchmarks I make some judgement about my own work then seek external vaildation for my judgment -with a strong focus upon my next steps.

It’s at this point that I will refer back to something that Bob Lingard said on Saturday – when he mentioned that all too often teachers don’t provide anough challenge or extend learners enough – he mentioned how outstanding teachers provide, what Vygotsky called the  Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). But what if learners had access to others’ work – in much the same way as they havce acces to their friends Bebo or MySpace sites – which influences their own sites – would this provide that same ZPD??

Last point – Lindsay Paterson wrote in last week’s TESS about the need to remember the value of discplinary work – I have to agree – but Extreme learning will give learners the chance to deepen their knowledge and understanding of disciplines in addition to being multi-disciplinary. Why don’t we set the four capacities as one side of the learning circle – with a focus on the process, whilst intellectual challenge forms the other side?

Extreme Learning – on the point of breakthrough??

We held our latest Extreme Learning meeting on Thursday.

David Gilmour and myself have been working on the idea of on-line templates for learners to use as a framework for their Extreme Learning projects.

As I’ve previously explained the template concept proved to be too restrictive for learners; technically too demanding for teachers to support; and limiting for those learners who wanted to set up their own project outwith the school setting.

As a consequence of these concerns David and I had been exploring the idea of a “toolbox” which learners could refer to for support but which didn’t limit their options in any way. We had also spent some time trying to work out a way in which we could tie in the four capacities and the curricular areas together into some form of formative assessment matrix.

On Thursday we took these findings and ideas to the group. After some discussion and small group sessions we came up with the following:

    • Templates are too restrictive – but we need something to provide support for learners;
    • Projects must be derived from research questions
    • Projects should require learners to actively demonstrate elements from each of the capacities
    • Rather than a “tool box” (“kids don’t use tool boxes any more”) we need a “skills box” – which through accessing simple icons could provide different levels of assistance and demand – “a bit like progressing through the levels of a computer game”
    • The idea of providing assessment outcomes would be a turn off – “translate outcomes into challenges”
    • The initiative becomes the “Extreme Learning Challenge” where people try to get to the higest level they can.
    • “Chunk” up the project development and let different people work on small manageable parts – if they then work we can gradually start to link these together – thanks to Kenneth McLaughlin for his link to Agile Software Development. Some chunks might work within a particular subject area e.g. maths, others within a particular age group; others focussing upon a particular capcity.
    • Target a few people who want to learn this way in the first instance.
    • Assessment must be formative
    • Seek to engage a number of schools in this development to create a momentum within the authority – and beyond.
    • “We don’t need summative assessment” – summative assessment is used to provide a shorthand way to show that you can do something – “I’ve got an ‘A’ in Higher Maths (I don’t by the way!) – so I must have some mathematical talent”. However, if I have projects which other people can look at for evidence of what I can do, then the need for summative assessment of projects is not longer required. 
    • Their projects become part of their e-portfolio.

Linking with something I came across yesterday I wonder of we could build something akin to the Productive Pedagogies  into the  challenge elements – particularly in relation to depth of knowledge and understanding, and connectedness.

Our final decision as a group was to meet again for a whole day but this time with the most important group – who have so far not been involved in it’s development – the learners themselves. We intend to set up a session where representatives from our group will bring pupils from their schools/groups. By engaging with the learners themselves we hope that we can begin to shape our ideas up into something which can make real difference to the learning process .

I wonder of there’s a games designer out there who might like to help up on this one?

Extreme Learning Toolbox


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I spent an afternoon with David Gilmour exploring possible Extreme Learning templates.

It was interesting how we went about the task with some reference to my post yesterday about the Amundsen approach, i.e. we spent a lot of time considering at “what ifs?” and “how do we make it simple?” – this time was well spent as we made rapid progress thereafter.

What has proved useful is the time we’ve taken between playing around with some initial ideas and giving further consideration to the context of A Curriculum for Excellence.

The above sketch (David’s handy work) gives some indication of our direction of travel. If you can’t open the link by clicking on the sketch try it here – there are notes on the photo which you can access by moving the cursor over the photo.

We’ll be holding an open meeting in early May to give this fuirther shape and to set up some pilots for the coming session. If you need a reminder about the purpose/rationale of Extreme Learning check it out here.

Here is an outline – in linear form – of our emerging ideas.

  1. Learners will set up an exc-el blog as in the normal way – this will allow them to really personalise their own site.
  2. We will populate an Extreme Learning Toolbox which learners can use for guidance and to cut and paste infromation to their own site.
  3. On the toolbox we will place a screenshot movie with documentary by learners to talk their peers through the process.
  4. Learners will select a theme for their Extreme Learning Project
  5. The learner will select four learning windows/building blocks/curricular areas with which to view/consider their theme.
  6. The learner will identify the level of performance they aspire to in each area (we will set out learning outcomes in each area for each of the four levels)
  7. The learner completes 3 “mash-ups” where they will consider the connections between 2 areas and the theme being considered.
  8. Learners can keep an on-going learning log to chart and record their progress.
  9. People will be able to comment on all work as it progresses.
  10. The final stage involves the learner reflecting upon their learning by considering the how their experience has contributed to the development of their four capacities and their level of performance in relation to the selected curricular areas.

Extreme Learning Meeting

We’ve tried to contact all schools but if you were thinking about coming along to the Extreme Learning Meeting tomorrow- don’t – it’s been cancelled.

We’ve been working on a variety of templates but don’t yet have them complete.

I’ll write out to all involved with the new date which will be early in the new term. Apologies.

Extreme Learning Update

We reconvene our Extreme Learning Group in late February.

Over the last couple of months we’ve been playing around with an on-line Extreme Learning project. Hopefully this will be completed by the time we meet but it has been useful in enabling us to try out the theory and smooth out some of the technical and educational challenges presented by the concept.

I recently met with David Gilmour – our Exc-el guru – to explore the development of Extreme Learning templates. The idea would be that we can set up a variety of templates which pupils could use to give shape to their project and be tailored to their ability – differentiation in action!  The obvious progression is to make the templates gradually more dependent upon the pupil’s judgement and expertise but to provide a fairly closed environemnt for the first attempt.

By the time of our next meeting we hope to set these templates up and be ready to try them out with a variety of pilot groups of learners in schools and community groups.  If you think you would like to work with a group of learners on a voluntary Extreme Learning Project drop me a line.

Curriculum change in Australia

We had a great presentation today from May Sweeney and Alison Wishart about their recent visit to Victoria and Tasmania to explore emerging curriculum models.

I was particularly interested in the Victorian Essential Learning Standards which has three key strands: Physical, personal and social learning; Discipline based learning; and Interdisciplinary learning.

What captured my attention was the research which May referred to which reinforced the notion of disciplinary learning.

I believe that this remains one of the central challenges arising from A Curriculum for Excellence where in the drive to break down barriers between secondary school subjects we lose some of the existing strengths of the system.

As I’ve explored before on this blog we have a duty to parents, pupils and our profession to make sure that we don’t lose this opportunity presented by the ACfE. However, it was fascinating to learn how the Tasmanian public had responded to curriculum change in their state. The lesson for us in Scotland is to ensure that all stakeholders (jargon alert!!) are involved in the development of our curriculum and that we avoid jargon at all costs.

In line with this throught we explored the possibility of bringing together for a few days a head teacher, depute head teacher, principal teacher, teacher, student, parent and local empoyer from each of our secondary school communities to explore how we might move forwards our S1 – S3 curriculum in East Lothian.

A Curriculum for Excellence – going over the top?

over the top?

Alison Wishart has just returned from Australia where she was exploring alternative secondary school curriculum models – some of which match with our extreme learning ideas

I had a great chat with Alison this morning which set up a discussion with secondary head teachers this afternoon.

Alison was telling me about schools in Australia where the early years’ secondary school curriculum is built around “concepts” which we might know better as themes.  For example, one of the themes is personal identity – subjects explore this theme from their own perspective with students – e.g. biology looked at disecting sheep brains and looking at human brain structure; whilst in other subjects they looked at the influence of nature/nurture; ethnic background; geographic location, etc, etc.  The pupils then had to complete projects drawing these subjects together using their own experience. I hope I’ve got this right Alison.

Some subjects are seen as “tools” such as maths, language, ICT which enabled this exploration to take place.

Alison then told me about the single exit point assessment – as opposed to our multiple and seemingly never ending SQA assessments in our secondary schools. What prevents us from allowing pupils and teachers to have much greater freedom from S1 – S3 then pupils undertaking a one – or preferably two year course – where they sat only one assessment at the point of exit? We currently let pupils sit multiple assessments due to the fact that we are worried they have no “fall back” position.

But what if we became smarter at knowing pupils potential – the fact is we do know their potential, what we don’t know if they are going to engage with their studies or not – that is the imponderable. But what if we could turn pupils onto learning – through a more engaging curriculum  – which builds upon their primary school experience – I’d argue that the likelihood of them switching off is greatly reduced.

I  have personally known so many – thousands – of children who would have got something out of this approach but who will be first to take the leap?

This leads me to the discussion with our secondary head teachers. We were discussing SQA costs – which are rising exponentially – to the point where schools are going to have to look at their presentation policies. The reality of this will be that pupils of lower ability will gradually be limited to which exams they can sit. So what might be the alternative – well why not S1 -S3 as a developmental phase where pupils build upon their primary experience as learners? In S4 most pupils will embark upon a two year course which will lead thenm to an exam at the end of S5. Some pupils will exit at S4 and take ther exams at that point. Wow! – at long last teachers would get two uninterrupted years working with pupils towards Highers or their equivalent. So what about S6? – well that would need some thought and perhaps that’s where we need to engage with higher education to look at what they want from school education – as far as I can see they certainly don’t rate what’s coming out of schools at the moment – so what have we got to lose?

The main problem here will be parents – or so we think. They want the safety net – or so we think. They want their children to be tested regularly – or so we think. But if we were to really engage with them and explain to them and their children about what we were thinking of doing would they really react as we might expect? I’m a parent – and I would have loved to have seen my sons have this opportunity.

Should we take the first step? – or wait for someone else?

Extreme Learning – taking shape

The Extreme Learning exemplar is starting to take shape.

A number of things are emerging:

Perhaps we should have a number of project templates – not just about the look of the site – which would give students a scaffolding to build their project?;

It would help students if there was guidance in each of the knowledge areas which they could use as prompts for the sorts of things they might investigate. For example in maths – percentages; graphs; formula; trends; etc.

Perhaps this is where some differentiation can take place with different levels being made available to students and they choose which is appropriate for them? A basic level of Maths might just be about mentioning numbers and showing a graph; a more complex level might be where the students use the numbers to work out solutions or to provide evidence for what they are investigating.

I wonder of there are any geographers out there who could suggest what I might look at in relation to geography for the Gannet project?

As for assessment I think I’ll set up a comment page for people to leave a comment about the project but I’m also playing around with the idea of the project writer making up a test based upon all of the content covered in the project. The writer of the project might have to sit their test in exam conditions? It could also be available for others to try on line?

Last point does it matter of there is some plagiarism in the project? What happens iof a student coipies a piece of text from saomewhere on the web and inserts in their project.  I know the traditional approach is that they should write it out “in their own words” but what if the way in which it is written elsewhere says it much better. I have to admit to having put in couple of bits like that in my project. The point is – I am learning. Is that not the point?