August 13, 2007

Extreme Learning by any other name?

Firefoxscreensnapz002 About now teachers across Scotland go back to school, the kids joining them later on this week. For secondary teachers comes that interesting moment of meeting your new 'S1' students, the ones just out of primary school. At this time another feeling would come into my mind: "I just can't do this French textbook with them; it'll bore them silly and they've done it all before".

Being a little maverick, I would dump the textbooks asap, using them almost as a way in to see where everyone was at. Within six weeks my students were already writing their first every fairytales in French, and loving every moment. I've still got them all in my files - I'll have to share some of them online one day. Better than "j'ai un chien" any day.

Extreme Learning has, for the past couple of years, been an idea fermenting in East Lothian as a means to bridge that gap between primary and secondary that exists in most cases, where students spend the first two years of secondary going off the boil, repeating things they've already done, seeing 10 teachers a week instead of one, discovering more interesting things than school work... It essentially evolves around the tried and tested methods being used in New Zealand and, particularly, Australia, where projects involving rich tasks lead to a deeper understanding of not only the matter at hand, but also of learning itself. Take a look at an example project to see what we mean.

My personal Eureka moment came barely four weeks into my Scottish teaching career in 2002 during a fluke invitation to New Brunswick, Canada. There, in a Miramichi primary school, I saw 70 anglophone children being taught by three amazing teachers en fran├žais. They were grouped into tables of about eight (that magic number again) and the teachers indulged themselves in their own favourite specialties, class-teaching with a borg-like microphone attached to ear and mouth, teaching in smaller groups made up of project-based sub-groups. The students' attitudes to learning and what they were able to produce in a second language was incredible.

On reading Futurelab's Vision magazine I was delighted to see that work needn't pay for the whole team to visit New Brunswick to see this in action. In the article we see that Djangoly City Academy in Nottingham has created its own New Basics Curriculum around the rich tasks model of Queensland, Australia, providing a means for the core subject content and skills to be taught indirectly through a series of defined rich tasks.

Extreme_learning Some different angles for Extreme Learning?
For me, there are two takeaways for Extreme Learning. The first, is that the design of the tasks is worked out quite heavily in advance. It is only a framework, which can be steered and manipulated by students, but it is a framework that 'covers' the essential skills we'd expect over a period of a couple of years (i.e. not covering what a child in eighth year of education, term two should have covered).

Second, and I think importantly, their students are grouped as one unit of 70 with four teachers - almost identical to the Canada model - and flexible projection and panel units mean that smaller groups can be created instantly. "It is similar to the primary school set-up they are used to but it is a secondary curriculum," says the Assistant Principal, Sanjesh Sharma. Not only that, but it offers the best opportunity to work collaboratively, because the physical space and sheer numbers of potential collaborators, as well as the curriculum, aid collaboration, rather than creating barriers to it.

As East Lothian heads off into yet another year of innovation I wonder whether a trip to Nottingham might help reignite some ideas about where Extreme Learning could head.


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Extreme Learning could work quite well with Lesson Study. Lesson Study provides a powerful way for teachers to really observe the instruction process. The focus of observation is the engagement of the students. I'll let the ideas ferment and post on it soon!

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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