The Learning Zone

A Teacher Hack to link Carol Dweck’s ‘Brainology’ idea with John Hattie’s ‘assessment capable learners’.

Carol Dweck’s ‘Brainology‘ programme teaches pupils how learning effects their brains in order to help them develop a growth mindset and thus learn better. John Hattie states that pupils need to be ‘assessment capable learners’ able to answer the questions: 

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I want pupils to make the most of their time with me. I want them to be doing the right practice questions for them. Maths to GCSE is an eleven year course where we constantly revisit previous work to build on it, deepen understanding, make connections with new topics and help pupils to apply it to new problems and develop different ways of thinking. Regardless of how we set, every group we teach is mixed ‘ability’ and in front of us are 30 pupils who all have different needs (see my previous post on setting). So, how to meet their different needs? How to make sure they are all appropriately challenged or scooped up and not left behind? 

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After teaching and sharing the purpose of the lesson I put a menu on the board and expect pupils to think carefully about their confidence with what we are doing and then choose the best place to start, for them personally. We call this Ewapping from Jim Smith’s E.W.A.P. – Everything With A Purpose. Not sure when it became a verb but love that it did. Also love it when I hear ‘I’ve double-ewapped Miss!’ – a sign that I am developing assessment capable students who are committed to making the most progress they can in that lesson. Then at some point in the blur that was the Autumn Term some wonderful teacher (enormous thanks and please let me know who you are!) put this picture on their blog:

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To set The Learning Zone up (and it’s a great Teacher Hack once it’s up and running) I carefully describe the feeling of being in each zone and how this relates to what is going on in their brains. So, being in The Comfort Zone is a pointless waste of time, even though it feels nice and feels like you are learning because your book is neat and has ten ticks in it. I often find this is a big problem with girls; beautifully, neat books with no errors. What are they learning? They are often repeating last year’s work. My job is to mess with their head, get them to take a risk, pick a really challenging question, get stuck, get it wrong and then the real learning can begin. For some pupils this process can take most of the year but it’s worth it when they start to break out of the need for correct answers and fly.

Being in The Panic Zone is the complete opposite but has a similar effect – no real learning happening. This one comes with my ‘rabbits in headlights’ impression (god knows what that looks like! Time I manned-up and starting videoing lessons again…) If you choose a question that is too hard and makes you panic and you can’t think of anyway into it then your working memory is overloaded and that why you feel like you can’t think……because you actually can’t. A bit of practice first to build up to it would be a better use of the lesson.

The Learning Zone is the Goldilocks place where there is the right amount of challenge so that pupils have to think to apply the new knowledge/skill/thinking, some errors are being made thus providing me and them with enough feedback and the maximum amount of progress is being made. It should feel like hard work; it should require effort, resilience and peserverence because they are literally growing their brains. Neurons are firing and making new connections; they are getting better at Maths and more intelligent. Hurrah!


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