Stuart Gardner is chief executive of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, which takes a cognitive approach to education across its 17 high-performing schools in the South East. He has over 20 years of experience in the education sector, having previously been headteacher and executive headteacher at a number of schools.
The vast majority of school leaders will be familiar with the balancing act of reducing costs while still ensuring that we provide the highest possible quality of education to our students. In the 20 years I have spent working in the education sector – first as a teacher and then as a headteacher, before becoming the Chief Executive of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust – this challenge has been a key focus for me. I have seen much in the way of innovation and creative thinking to address it – but it is the model that we have introduced at Thinking Schools which I am most proud of.
The ambition of every leader in education is to meaningfully improve our students’ outcomes. This is particularly important at a time when school budgets are under increasing pressure, meaning we often have to support teaching and learning using the resources we already have.
However, the answer is deceptively simple - and most school leaders are aware of it, but may not know how to harness its power. While extra funding is always welcome, the solution to improving teaching and learning may well lie in a change of attitude... and a dose of extra creativity.
By developing students’ learning habits and thinking skills, school leaders can essentially help them think better. This establishes a foundation for better learning and helps deliver improved outcomes in the long term.
Metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking’, has been shown to be a key factor in increasing a student’s potential.
At the Thinking Schools Academy Trust (TSAT), we believe that the best way to transform life chances is to actively shape the minds, attitudes and habits of young people using a framework of cognitive education.
Some of the ideas underlying this framework date back thousands of years - Aristotle once said that “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” But the application to multi-academy trusts is new. Our approach enables students to consciously recognise their own habits, strengths, and areas for development, and actively seek to improve themselves - thereby creating transformational change.
One of the key ways in which we foster this is by encouraging close collaboration between Primary and Secondary schools.
A recent successful example was when Year 10 students from The Victory Academy and Year 5 students from Cedar Children’s Academy worked together to create a storybook called The 6 Seeds of Cedar.
Inspired by Dr Seuss, with original characters brought to life in beautiful illustrations, the book is a resource designed to promote student engagement and critical thinking across all TSAT schools. It unites creativity with cognitive techniques, to instil positive habits of mind.
The “6 Seeds” represent six key critical thinking skills: persisting, managing impulsivity, listening with understanding and empathy, questioning and posing problems, applying past knowledge to new situations, and taking responsible risks.
For two hours each week, the Year 5 students were introduced to the more advanced learning habits of the Year 10s - or, as they refer to them, “Victory Virtues”. Having older role models in these lessons was inspirational for the Cedar students, who could learn from those who are further along their thinking skills journey.
The younger pupils were not the only ones to grow and benefit from the experience, as the Year 10 students were able to further their understanding of the Victory Virtues by taking on the responsibility of sharing knowledge with a younger audience. Both groups of students emerged proud of and empowered by the finished book.
This collaboration between students of different ages has offered a brilliant opportunity for improving students’ critical thinking skills, using a more creative approach to making the most of the resources we already have.
It has also demonstrated the growing understanding of the cognitive processes involved in learning, and the value of applying neuroscience to our approaches to teaching and learning.
The challenge for school leaders has always been how to make metacognition and neuroscience work consistently at a whole-school level, to generate the impact we know it can have. The 6 Seeds project has done just that.
The book will now be part of the framework for future curricula at Cedar, and its authors will impart their knowledge of the 6 Seeds to their fellow pupils. These 6 Seeds will be planted in Reception, and through lessons tailored to different ages throughout students’ academic careers, pupils will head to Secondary school reflective about their own habits of mind and prepared for what is to come.
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