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RSA Academy Research Notes

Monday 13th September

Spanish GCSE Class                              

Sarah Tierney (New, OM, KS4, KS5)

Gifted and Talented, 9 students including Louise Murphy and Liam Salt 

The children all participated fully and remained engaged for the duration of the lesson. Sarah challenged them by getting them to work out Spanish words and phrases for themselves. They did this effectively and demonstrated initiative in the lesson. They seemed to learn a lot in the 3 hour period.

Sarah who is new to the school said the Opening Minds students are more independent learners and they show initiative. Opening Minds students are more used to coming up with ideas for themselves and are more self sufficient. She said it was a noticeable difference from other schools she had taught at and also from the older years at the academy who had not gone through the Opening Minds programme. Sarah said she preferred the 3 hour time slots as it allowed her to get into the material far more with the children, they were able to get much more done and worked well.

In Opening Minds the students had only done languages for 35 minute slots and had done different languages in year 7 and 8. This means they are essentially starting Spanish from scratch. The students doing languages are often the ones that the school hopes will do the I.B. as a second language is necessary for this.

I spoke to the children at the end of the lesson and they had the following thoughts on the transition:

Opening Minds was frequently described as boring and a preference was shown for Key Stage 4. Reasons for this were that Opening Minds was ‘claustrophobic’ as they were often taught in classes of 90. They preferred the lessons now as they were now in specific subjects for which they had more time. They also liked the smaller classes better and preferred the teaching now. Despite their preference for Key Stage 4 they felt that Opening Minds had taught them important skills such as team work and communication. They felt Opening Minds had helped prepare them for the world of work after school.

Tutor time with all the selected students 

‘Opening Minds was like a concentration camp’

‘The school is like a prison’

‘Opening Minds treated us like we were in nursery, but expected us to do work like in university.’

Many of the students said they felt Opening Minds was ‘boring’ and that it was ‘like nursery’. They said they were sometimes confused about the competencies and didn’t know what subject they were supposed to be learning. However they did feel it had taught them what sort of learner they were e.g. kinaesthetic as well as useful skills for work such as computer skills. They also liked that they had no homework under Opening Minds.

The students expressed concern that they hadn’t learnt anything in Opening Minds. This meant they felt under enormous pressure now and felt they were learning some subjects from scratch. They also expressed that KS4 teaching were more strict. As most of the students now had new teachers they felt like their teachers didn’t know what they were like and they didn’t like this.

In regard to the new building, it was commented that although the new building should feel spacious it was actually claustrophobic due to the locked gates and CCTV cameras everywhere. Students felt like they were always being watched and said they felt more free in the old school.

Digital Communications

Eleanor Bernandes (OM Team Leader, KS4, KS5)

Top Set, 28 students including Jaskara Sanga, Louise Murphy and Liam Salt

The students were generally engaged with a variety of tasks. However, some children were easily distracted and failed to co-operate with the teacher. The lesson saw some of the students participated fully, whilst others were half asleep or chatting away. It was clear that levels of engagement were varied. The class were very aware they were top set; some even questioned why some of their peers had been placed in this class. One of the tasks asked pairs of students to demonstrate the brief dramatic scene they had prepared to the class, only boys volunteered for this. Throughout the lesson it was generally boys that were more vocal in answering questions bar a couple of girls including Jas. The other girls either sat quietly and were very obedient or were disruptive with their incessant talking.

Eleanor said she definitely saw a difference with the children who had gone through the Opening Minds programme. Particularly that they were more used to questioning things and thinking in different ways. Also that the Opening Minds students were more tenacious but this meant they were sometimes too big for their boots.


Tuesday 14th September

HASL Opening Minds Year 7

Danielle Wilkinson (OM Team Leader) Anna Williams (Teach first new)

All the students had access to net books on their tables; they used these to research countries of the world. Strong research component in this lesson.

Throughout the lesson there was fairly good student engagement, children frequently answered questions. The children were consistently encouraged to participate e.g. writing their ideas on the board. The lesson flowed very well, incorporating Geography and R.E into its content.

The teachers emphasise the importance of creativity and original ideas. The students are encouraged to come up with their own ideas not just copy each other. Then there is a task requiring students to work in groups. Danielle emphasises the importance of learning to work together, as this is what life is like in the ‘real’ world. They are being taught practical ways of dealing with problems in their groups, they are learning to co-operate. It is also emphasised that everyone has different skills and that they should work together and use each other’s strengths.

At the end of the lesson the children all reflect on what went well and what could be even better next time. They are constantly evaluating their learning.

Mathematics KS4

Shazia Yusaf (OM teacher, KS4 teacher) Learning Support Assistant

4th set, 20 students including Bethan Glover

Started with very basic division problems e.g. 134 divided by 8. Many struggled with these simple problems, many didn’t know their times tables either.  Shazia has to go over simple Maths that they should have learnt in y7/8.

Two students commented they didn’t like being in a low set as it made the feel ‘stupid’ and it meant they were never given challenging work. In OM they could pick the level they wanted to do in a subject e.g. advanced, but they can’t do that anymore. Bethan said she would rather be in a higher set that challenged her. Many of the children in the set hate Maths, some feel like they are a failure and they lack basic skills. Some of the other students said they didn’t mind that much though. Children all asked to reflect at the end of the lesson, WWW and EBI, they are encouraged to reflect on their learning experience. But students say it is not helpful as they have to do it every day. They don’t do it properly, they just write the same thing every day or what they think the teachers want to hear.

 Learning Support has worked at the school for 10 years. She has found it very hard adapting to OM, she doesn’t see it as ‘proper’ Maths. She feels the students aren’t prepared for higher level Maths, they aren’t at the expected KS4 level. Learning Support feels her role is almost redundant now as they are often doing more activity based work, harder to help them without doing the work for them. She would like to see Maths taught alone in OM, she feels it needs a specialist teacher. Negative about OM’s ability to prepare pupils for GCSE.

Shazia is very enthusiastic about OM, says she found the transition to KS4 teaching easy, still applies OM principles. OM children are ‘a different breed’, they are more eager to learn, articulate, they are more rounded. She states they are great in comparison to previous pupils she has taught as they are far more confident and participate in lessons. She embraces a more interesting pedagogy, says chalk and talk doesn’t work well. Comments that some of the older teachers don’t like OM, there is not consensus amongst the staff. Clear distinction is noticed between new teachers who generally embrace OM approach and older staff who are not convinced by its rigour.

Wednesday 15th September

Performing Arts BTEC

Anna Williams (Teach First) Rebecca Harker (OM and KS4)

For a chosen option there seemed to be a lot of wasted time complaining instead of engaging with the work. When it came to performing, some students didn’t want to.

Breakfast caused huge disruption, class didn’t settle well after it. Students were expected to stand up as they were doing vocal exercises but there was a lot of complaining and girls claiming they were going to faint. To begin with some resistance to participating with vocal exercises, one girl walked out of the lesson. It was often difficult to get the students quiet, there was a lot of talking and messing around. But eventually the students began to participate well.

Class split into 2 groups and given the song Fame to learn and perform. The group I was with couldn’t agree on anything. People didn’t listen to each other, many of the students became frustrated. There was a lot of arguing about what to do, some people just gave up all together. It was a not a good demonstration of the team work competence. However, the other group worked really well together and produced a great performance of the song.

Teachers expressed that the most daunting thing about teaching OM is that you are teaching subjects you are not used to. Initially this is overwhelming but they said you get used to it.

The students I spoke to showed a preference for KS4 as they got to choose what they wanted to do. They found the lessons more enjoyable because they were in smaller classes. OM classes were so big the students didn’t feel like they were noticed or important. All the students I spoke to really like enrichment, as there is lots of choice and it breaks up the week so they are not always writing.

Thursday 16th September

MST Opening Minds Y8

I observed 2 classes doing different MST OM lessons. Both classes had a clear Maths element despite others commenting that this was not the case. From what I understand the school has recently put more emphasis on the Maths element of MST. The Maths they were doing in one class was about the nth term which is C grade GCSE, so it was more advanced than I was anticipating.

In both classes the students were well engaged, there was only low level noise and minor discipline issues. They got to learn in very practical ways e.g. throwing water balloons and measuring the area of the circle they created. The students said they found it more interesting learning like this than just copying out of a book or just doing Maths for hours.

Science BTEC

Jonathon Roche (Teach First)

Teacher disliked by pupils, they admitted they liked to ‘terrorise him’ because he is new and they didn’t respect him.

It was immediately clear that there were discipline issues. He had very low tolerance for noise and talking. He sent someone out after 2 minutes for talking, even though the rest of the class were also talking. Students complained he didn’t warn them about their behaviour, he just sent them out. Several pupils were sent out during the lesson, Harry was sent out three times. Some of the children worked well but others were disruptive. Detention was threatened for pupils shouting out but he was inconsistent as enforcing this as sometimes he allowed shouting out.

Friday 17th September

Staff Training Day, learning to incorporate OM into KS4 and KS5, some Lead Learners also attended.

I sat in on the clinic which gave advice to the teachers on how to incorporate student led questioning into their lesson plans. Student led questioning sees a move away from teachers always asking the students questions. Students are supposed to ask each other questions, so they can take control of their learning and learn from each other. A lot of groups that came to the clinic were clearly confused about what student led questioning was. However, they were given a lot of useful information on it.

It is clear that for teachers who haven’t taught OM before, they found trying to incorporate it overwhelming, as it meant they needed to learn so much new information. However, whilst the staff training day demonstrated that some staff members did not have a grasp of Opening Minds as they found it confusing and frustrating. It was clear that by the end of the day the staff who hadn’t previously taught Opening Minds seemed to be beginning to understand and embrace it.

It is noticeable that there are a lot of new young teachers at the school, many who had only just started and new very little about OM. In contrast, teachers who had been at the school for even a couple years and had embraced OM were highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable on the subject. Yet, the problem for them is that they don’t know what there next career move is, as they don’t want to return to ‘normal’ teaching.

Futher Comments:

Focus: The transition from Opening Minds in year 7 and 8 and to Key Stage 4 in year 9. How did the students cope with the transition? How do the staff feel about their first cohort of Opening Minds students? How have they coped with implementing Opening Minds?

Opening Minds emphasises students finding out answers for themselves, it expects them to develop skills such as research, team-work and controlling emotions. Opening Minds sees lessons made relevant to the students; they are shown why what they are learning is important.

Student responses:

‘Opening Minds was good preparation for Key Stage 4’

‘I don’t think we learnt much in OM’

‘There were lots of different things to do in OM’

The students are not all fully aware of the impact Opening Minds has had on them as they have not known a more traditional pedagogy at secondary school. Some of the students expressed how they found Opening Minds boring and repetitive. However, from observing Opening Minds it was clear that most students were engaged and enjoyed the variety of tasks they were given in lessons.

Opening Minds was frequently described as boring and a preference was shown for Key Stage 4 within the group of students we spoke to. Reasons for this were that Opening Minds was ‘claustrophobic’ as they were often taught in classes of 90. They preferred the lessons now as they were taught in specific subjects for which they had more time. They also liked the smaller classes better as there was more focus on them and their subject. It is important to note they really liked that they were now able to choose their options. Despite their preference for Key Stage 4 they felt that Opening Minds had taught them important skills such as team work and communication. They felt Opening Minds had helped prepare them for the world of work after school.

Staff responses:

‘Before Opening Minds I was getting bored of the repetition of teaching, I was considering leaving the profession but now I love teaching Opening Minds.’

‘At first Opening Minds was an alien concept but once you have got it, that’s it, you wouldn’t want to go back’

‘The Opening Minds students are a different breed; they are articulate, independent and confident in expressing themselves.’

The transition for teachers to the Opening Minds approach appears to be a much bigger change for them than it is for the students. However, once teachers had adapted and embraced the change it seemed to work very well. It appeared to me that the real key to the Opening Minds approach at Key Stage 3 was finding the equilibrium between being too content driven or too competency driven. This stability seemed to have been found but the challenge of finding this same balance at Key Stage 4 and 5 is a work in progress.

All the teachers I spoke to who taught Opening Minds at Key Stage 3 expressed that they much preferred teaching in this way. The concepts of it along with the 3 hour lessons, give them far more time to be creative and to really get to know their students. Those who had taught it already found it easy enough to incorporate into Key Stage 4 but those who hadn’t were still finding their feet with it all.

Teachers  expressed that they preferred the 3 hour time slots as it allowed them to get into the material far more with the children, they were able to get much more done and worked well. They also stated that the got to build much better relationships with their students due to the length of lessons. They often commented that they would struggle to go back to teaching one hour blocks. However, this does put a lot of strain on teachers who have to keep children engaged for such a long period of time, especially as they have no desk or chair to sit on.

The teachers I spoke to articulated that there was a noticeable difference with the Opening Minds students. The year 9 students are very different from other schools they have taught at, as well as in comparison to students in older years of the RSA Academy who have not gone through the Opening Minds programme.

The teachers I spoke to expressed that Opening Minds students are more independent learners who show initiative, they are also self sufficient and are more used to coming up with ideas for themselves, they are used to taking control of their learning. These attributes all have advantage but it does mean that classrooms are often noisy as everyone wants to express their point of view. This might be daunting for a teacher that is new to the Opening Minds style, indeed many new teachers found it overwhelming. The students are used to being taught in a non-traditional style so if a teacher uses a more traditional pedagogy the students do not respond well, however this is not common.

The teachers I spoke to did express that at first Opening Minds was overwhelming as they had to get to grips with a very different approach. Yet they found once they had adapted to it they saw it as beneficial to themselves and their students. One of the most difficult things for them to get to grips with was teaching outside their specialised subject area. Teachers who had trained in a specific subject now found they were expected to teach a broad spectrum of subjects as well. At first this was daunting, but most relished the challenge.

Opening Minds is working well at Key Stage 3, and in some aspects of Key Stage 4 such as BTECs. However, some staff expressed it did not lend itself so easily to more exam dominated qualifications such as GCSEs and A Levels. This is due to the struggle to fit the competencies in as there is so much pressure on them to get good exam results. The replacement of A Levels with the I.B may alleviate this concern as will the teachers getting more used to incorporating the competencies into their lessons.

The staff training day demonstrated that some staff members did not have a grasp of Opening Minds, there was confusion and frustration among them. However, by the end of the day the staff who hadn’t previously taught Opening Minds seemed to be beginning to understand and embrace it.