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Becoming a Thinking School helped our pupils become self-motivated learners

Judith Stephenson is Thinking Schools & Research Lead at Barbara Priestman Academy, Tyne and Wear. Here, she discusses the philosophy behind Thinking Schools and how it has helped her pupils, who are all on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Our journey to becoming a Thinking School began back in 2008; it has been a complex and demanding process, but the impact on our school and its pupils has been dramatic. 

What prompted you to become a Thinking School?

We had observed that a vast number of our students, who are aged 11-19,  were passive learners. They were being given information in order to pass exams but there was little opportunity for them to discover things for themselves. What we wanted was to raise the level of challenge and for them to become self-motivated and lead their own learning. 

All our students have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and/or complex needs and this was an added factor we needed to consider when trying to find an approach that they would be able to connect with. Our students like things to be right or wrong and find it difficult when there isn’t a ‘right’ answer. 

The majority of our students see subjects as very separate entities and compartmentalise skills; they find transferring skills between subjects difficult.

We started off by introducing two tools from the Thinking Schools approach: David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps and Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats, both of which attracted us because they were such visual ways of learning. We also introduced Philosophy for Children (P4C) and Dramatic Enquiry, which is a fusion of P4C and drama.

We saw a difference almost immediately: as soon as we introduced the thinkingmaps, there was an almost immediate increase in the level of classroom talk.  

Many ASD children are very solitary and find group activities and working co-operatively very difficult.  It takes them out of their comfort zone and they feel enormous pressure.  Using visual mapping (the maps) and having something tangible on which to record their ideas gave them more confidence during discussion as they didn’t have to remember what they wanted to say. 

In addition to improving students’ independent learning, we also wanted to challenge them in the difficulties they had with empathy and seeing things from other people’s perspectives. 

In Dramatic Enquiries, learners are placed in the centre of a fictitious dilemma and they have to decide for themselves about the questions they need to ask and the rights and wrongs of the given Becoming a Thinking School helped our pupils become self-motivated learnerssituation.

It encourages them to be active, inquiring individuals.

Initially some staff thought that some of our ASD students would really struggle with the idea of taking on a role and pretending to be someone else as empathy is an area that a lot of students with ASD find very difficult. 

But Dramatic Enquiry was so powerful that we now run a session every term.

We also got involved in the National Theatre’s Connections programme which provides a director to come into the school and work with pupils on a play. After performing in a local venue we were among just 12 groups – chosen from 500 – to perform at the Dorfman Theatre in London as part of the National Theatre Connections Festival.

The boost to the students’ self-esteem was immense, and we had letters from those involved in the programme commenting on their professionalism and the standard of their performance as an ensemble.  

In December 2011 we became the first special school in the country to gain recognition as a Thinking School and in July 2016 achieved Advanced Thinking School Status.  

When we began our journey, we needed to consider what was essential in the leading of a Thinking School. For us, it was the fact that it was a shared vision; written together as a whole staff team so that everyone had ownership.  From that vision came a shared ethos that involved all staff, students and stakeholders thinking creatively and critically and continuously reflecting on their learning while developing a culture where this happens naturally.

The Academy worked with Thinking Matters. Thinking Schools are accredited by Exeter University. For a list of accredited schools, see socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk


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