Saturday, 21 February 2009


The third competency of our six is Reasoning. It is a truism that everyone reasons but the question remains 'how well?'. School children are often reluctant to reason beyond the shallowest trains of thought and will adopt the 'I don't know' approach.
In our school, where the Competency Based Curriculum has been going for just a few months, there is now a major emphasis by teachers in not accepting 'I don't know' as an answer and they are also sensitised to the many alternative ways in which children deploy this strategy. There is the intense look of concentration and scratching of the chin; there is the excited bouncing up and down, saying 'Ooh what is it? what IS it?' Then there are those who are fond of just gazing back at the teacher looking vaguely uncomfortable and those who well-up in mock indignation at being asked to think!
Why don't children attempt to reason and answer the question? Well, nearly always because they are frightened of failure and occasionally because they don't want to be seen as teacher's pet in a class with an anti-work ethos.
The staff have been influenced by Black and Wiliams' Inside the Black Box
and are working to ensure their questions are open-ended and that they allow thinking time before asking for an answer. We have adopted a 'hands down' approach in Q & A so that everyone in the room has to think about the question in hand.
At the same time I have promoted the idea that nobody learns much if every question is met by the right answer. Learning is wider spread and more profound when the wrong answer is given. 'Let's look at why you got that wrong - let's look at how we might arrive at the right answer.' This is teaching that promotes learning.
I get frustrated with teachers who resort to the phrase 'you can lead a horse to water...' implying that they have tried everything to promote intellectual engagement but without success. Instead we have to 'go meta' and start to encourage children to consider the purposes and benefits of persevering with reasoning.
By drawing Reasoning out in the Competency Based Curriculum we create a balance in the school's curriculum between knowledge (fact) based learning and skill (how to) based learning. In addition, we have Philosophy lessons in Year 7 and a Philosophy Club after school. See P4C
It is relatively easy to create a 'thinking school' where the intake of children is selective. It is a different matter in a school with mixed ability and even harder where the local selective grammar schools have creamed off the top 25% of pupils.
Much of what is written here about reasoning is common sense - the same is true of much of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) - but it is through persistent adhering to these simple principles that we make progress. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins talks of the need to find the single simple idea that will unite the organisation and lead to coordinated effort. For our school that idea is very simple and blindingly obvious - we focus on teaching and learning! I guess many Heads (Principles) would say they do the same thing but is that true?
A final thought: if, in a school, you had to cancel all meetings that didn't talk about teaching and learning how much time would you be left with?


  1. wow andy!
    This is really great stuff.
    I think that schools are obsessed with the right answer. I love the idea of looking at the wrong answer as "teaching that promotes learning."
    You're right. It's easy to think about exemplary teaching in a school that is "selective."
    What about schools where we try to teach everybody?

  2. I mentioned to you a little while ago two books that are probably as relevant now as when they were written in the 1960s. Both are by John Holt and are available on amazon where you can 'search inside' if you have an amazon account. The first is 'How Children Fail' and the second is 'How Children Learn.' This link is to 'How Children Fail' which deals extensively with the reasoning processes of young children:

  3. Sounds very interesting, Phil, and I think there is more wpork to be done generally on understanding fear of failure. Could I borrow your copy?