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Building Dens in Cumbria

How children were empowered to take control of their learning, through investigating effective strategies for collaboration.

Some time ago I caught up with some of our learning powered schools, and this gem of a tale was shared with me by the head of a primary school in Cumbria. Children there were taken out to build dens in the woods. ‘What could be more idyllic?’ you think to yourself. ‘The children must have taken to it like fish to water.’ So you can imagine teachers’ surprise when a group of their 7–10 year olds not only failed in their den-building task, but became ill-tempered and sullen. Surely such an exciting challenge would really engage children? But as the teachers observed and recorded their behaviour they became ‘quite shocked’. The problem — the children just didn’t know how to work together effectively: their collaborative skills were near rock-bottom.

The teachers, from three small schools on the far edge of the Lake District, were starting a learning enquiry, to explore children’s collaborative skills and ways of improving them. They charted how much the children used behaviours such as taking turns, making a plan, sharing ideas, helping others, listening actively, identifying what a task calls for, setting realistic goals, and so on. The data the teachers gathered revealed that pupils were poor at listening actively, sharing and building ideas, and setting realistic goals. Hence the dens were, as the children would say, ‘rubbish’.

Over the next six weeks, the schools worked with their pupils on collaborative skills. Classes generated lists of good collaborative skills and talked about how those help to get things done. They made wall displays, took part in collaborative learning challenges with minimal adult intervention, and the rich and sophisticated language of teamwork became everyday classroom talk. Learning challenges involved things like building bridges with newspaper and cardboard, designing and baking cakes, group juggling and focussed collaborative improvement support for sentence building, art and design.

Over the course of those six weeks, working through at least two significant collaborative learning challenges a week, the children were found to be taking more responsibility for their own learning. They became very aware of the importance of planning and of listening to others. As time went on they relied less on adult guidance and were far more prepared to persist when things went wrong.

Those children who built bridges from ‘junk’ material, for example, made huge improvements between their first and second attempts. They were proud of their success and, importantly, were able to make the connection between the behaviours they had used and their success. As Alfie said, ‘Because we planned this time round, the bridge stands.’

This six-week enquiry has had a big influence, going well beyond collaborative skills:

  • Yes, the children’s collaborative skills shot up, and have been sustained
  • They now initiate their own collaborative learning tasks
  • The challenges enabled them to show their creativity and take risks
  • They now guide their own learning and take charge of their own progress
  • They are highly motivated even to the point of asking for collaborative challenges instead of ‘extra play’ as a treat for best class attendance!

This was, of course, music to my ears. It’s when children recognise that their behaviour has a real impact on their success that building learning power really takes off.

How do you think your pupils or students would take to a collaborative exercise? Like fish to water? Or fish to a bicycle? How could you measure your pupils’ collaborative skills? Have a think about what good collaboration means and what good collaborators or team players do?

  • Bransty, Frizington and St Joseph’s primary schools near Whitehaven set up this enquiry while taking part in a Building the Foundations of Learning Power course, between days 2 and 3 of the four-day course.
  • Collaboration is covered comprehensively in our online Stepping Stones course Establishing Key Learning Behaviours
  • You could also find out more on Collaboration on our At a Glance cards
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