Lisa Ashes

Lisa Ashes

Lisa Jane Ashes is a self-employed teacher and author of Manglish: Bringing Maths and English Together Across the Curriculum. She is now a trustee of the charity Reach Out 2 Schools (www.reachout2schools.com), founded by Isabella Wallace, who are continuing to fund education-centric work in countries such as Nepal, India and South Africa. The organisation is also working on education projects within the UK, with Lisa using her knowledge of creativity within the curriculum to build better education for the most in need.

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“When am I ever going to use Pythagoras?”; “Why do I need to know what a noun is?”; “What’s the point in learning this?”... Sound familiar? You must be a teacher. If you’ve been teaching for some time, you probably know that questioning the purpose of education is nothing new. Do you ever wonder what your parents were like at school? Did they ask the same questions when it was their turn?

Independent Thinking associate Lisa Ashes is part of a group of passionate educators who have just gotten back from their latest pedagogic trip to Nepal. Here, the Manglish author (Teacher in the Cupboard is out soon) tells us why she’s proud to be a part of Reach Out 2 Schools’ mission...

Sitting in the department meeting, lists of issues are being fired at you from the usual agenda. Your colleagues’ eyes are rolling, arms crossed and lips pursed in distaste at the never-ending problems. You are sweating! Your cheeks burn and your hands tingle as you choke back the solution you think just-might-work. You can barely hear the rest of the points as you run over and over in your mind, how you might disrupt this meeting with the solution that is buzzing to be heard. If you could just bring yourself to lay the creative idea on the table… or is it a stupid idea? No matter, the meeting is over. It’s just another idea that you didn’t dare share.

Heading up a team of 20 people you’ve never met before and leading them into a world that you barely understand can teach you a lot about leadership. As we arrived in Kathmandu, ready to continue the training of teachers in Nepal, only a handful of our self-funded volunteers had any experience of teaching. Nobody knew who I was or why I was qualified to be running the show. The volunteers ranged from 17-year-old sixth formers to 60+ year old librarians. We also had well-established teachers, and one headteacher who I had viewed as a heroine and force of nature for quite some time. This was going to be a challenge.

My eyes were streaming as I walked through the streets of Kathmandu. Not because I was crying, but because it was so dusty! The lack of roads and volume of vehicles whip up air that is painful to breathe. Small children with no observable adult supervision are everywhere. I know children are small but this is a different kind of small. We’ve all done the child protection training that asks us to watch out for “failure to thrive”. It’s far more difficult to spot when the children are all in the same boat. They tug at you as you walk past. “Give money. Please. So hungry”. They cry at you in broken but well-rehearsed English that will rip your heart right out of your chest.

No matter what subject you teach, whether PE or quantum physics, communication will be part of your daily routine. As part of the English curriculum, the teaching of speaking and listening is mandatory. However, this does not always happen. Too often the group work, drama and presentation skills play second fiddle to reading and writing because, at the end of the day, reading and writing skills = exam passes and group work is a pain in the ass.

Chances are, you’ve read, listened to or seen a version of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here, teacher and author Lisa Jane Ashes applies themes and characters from Douglas Adams’ sci fi classic to look at how teachers can best create great questions.

Why 42? Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a great demonstration of how questioning can open up the imagination. Adams questioned everything we believe and a masterpiece of creativity was born. What if mice were more intelligent than men? What if the planet was created by technicians in a large factory? Underestimated dolphins, falling whales, improbability drives and the search for the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything; this story is creativity at its maddest and best.

This time last year, I had a class full of high achievers that gobbled up literature for fun; however, the reality is, most classes are not like that. The pupils I teach do not choose my subject, it is mandatory and pupils often question its purpose. My current Year 11 class are your typical challenging, huffy, childish and loud learners who generally take their free education for granted, having known nothing else. I could spend the year complaining about them and use their typicality as a mid-set group as an excuse for average results.

SOLO evangelist Lisa Ashes has a new method for students to observe their progress in lessons. Using her Year 12 English class as an example, she asks 3 questions to each pupil, who after reviewing their answers, appreciate how deeper methods of exploration help them acquire a different perspective and achieve a higher level of understanding.

The way that I create a meta cognitive wrapper is by carefully creating three questions that will start and end my lesson; the questions link directly to my learning outcomes.

The first question is about the current knowledge and understanding of the student. The second should embody the type of SOLO thinking; research, analysis, evaluation and/or creation of new ideas.

My final question asks pupils to think about the processes they are about to undertake, to prove they have learnt something.

As part of her 'Manglish' workshop at a Pedagoo 'Love Libraries' TeachMeet, AST Leader Lisa Ashes demonstrated a fun collaborative learning method called 'Thought Bombing' which teachers can use when there are multiple concepts or ideas that need to be considered. Each 'bomb' is a minituare sized hollow where slips of paper are put in describing one aspect of the subject, and is stuck to the relevant part of a picture.

Instead of forcing children to learn ideas, we like this idea because they are actively taking the 'bomb' from the picture and learning from it - which in essence is motivating them to do individual research and analysis, while collaborating at the same time.

As I am still working on the book version of my new 'Manglish' workshop, I will avoid writing about the ins and outs of it and instead share with you one simple idea for encouraging effective communication. This idea seemed to go down very well both in Edinburgh and at the recent TeachMeet English in Leeds so I thought it might be well worth sharing.

Below is a generic example of an exercise that you could base your own ideas for thought bombing on. This example could be translated into introducing characters from novels or poems (English); exploring the lives and decisions of historical figures (History); looking at cause and consequence (PHSE); Exploring bodily functions (Biology). The list goes on.

The idea is that pupils are given a small amount of information to get them hooked and then the thought bombs are thrown in to 'blow their minds'.

This article originally appeared in Innovate My School's September 2012 digital magazine.

The Structure of Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) taxonomy aims to show pupils how to develop sophisticated responses to questions by getting them to examine their thought-process as their understanding of a topic improves. I began using SOLO in 2011, and it is now integral to my teaching.

SOLO defines five stages of understanding for any topic: prestructural, unistructural, multistructural, relational and extended abstract. The first three involve gathering relevant information. The other two are about using that information: linking facts and findings, questioning existing ideas about the topic, and forming new theories.

All well and good. But how does it work in practice? Here’s a simplified example of how SOLO can help a pupil with little knowledge of a topic develop a sophisticated understanding of it and see the thought-process that got him there. In our imaginary lesson, the goal is for pupils to write an essay exploring the choices Johnny Depp has made in his acting career.

I have it on good authority that autonomy is a problem when our sixth formers leave us for university life.

Helping pupils recognise their learning and find ways to enhance their own exploration of the world in which they live, encourages autonomy; this must be developed earlier if we want to avoid spoon-feeding GCSE students and sixth formers forever, damaging their chances when their apron strings are finally cut.

One of the reasons that I use SOLO is that it is an accessible way to get pupils to see and understand their own thinking. SOLO provides teachers and pupils with a clear path to higher order thinking.

Students are taught the features of each level and how each level leads to the next; with development, our students are able to use their understanding of their own thinking to forward their learning into synthesis.

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