Archive for Thinking about learning and skills

A potential Curriculum for Significance

All children and young people need access to significance – but each will have different routes towards it. ‘Significance’ here is more than general wellbeing or some sense of being involved in society. It goes to the core of how each person thinks and feels about themselves, their core identity, and the extent to which this is seen as being of value (to themselves; and in the perception of others) – to what extent any person has significance in a world that is complex and uncertain.

It is tied closely to emotional health, to feelings of hope and of value, and to a constructed sense of self. Hopefully such a sense of significance will be built around positive, productive facets – developed through nurtured opportunities. If this is not the case then the person may grow a sense of absolute insignificance – feeling of being worthless – or will create their own significance through antisocial routes.

One strong strand of my own professional training was based on a belief that a key purpose of doing teaching, or youth work, or adult learning, was to enable each individual worked with to develop and strengthen their own significance. Whilst most education and social activity nods towards a need to foster personal development, this now seems to come well below concerns around skills development. It is true that developing robust literacy, language, numeracy or other skills provides a strong base for developing significance, but it also feels as if current education and training practices are in danger of focusing on routine skills at the expense of developing positive feelings of significance.

The current concerns around levels of emotional health, anxiety and self-harm throughout society would suggest that significance, and how it gets actively fostered, is worth more attention than it currently appears to have. Steps on the way to fostering stronger, positive significance for individuals can form some sort of development curriculum for life. What follows is an attempt to set out the wide range of things that might be built into everyday activities – at home; in the community; at school, college or university; or in the workplace – such that there can be a stronger focus on enabling the development of significance.

It is not proposed that these form distinct taught topics or sessions but are signposts to opportunities that can be taken at every relevant opportunity, in many various contexts. Read more

What – if anything – can be learnt from the so-called Trojan Horse Affair?


The so-called Trojan Horse Affair arose from an anonymous letter that was circulating within Birmingham in November 2013. This letter set out  proposed mechanisms for the takeover of schools by new governors (and senior staff) in order to implement a more restrictive faith-based curriculum and ethos. The letter was aimed at people in a number of other cities and claimed that such events were already underway in some schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham.

There was considerable doubt about the authenticity of the letter. Nevertheless, it was passed to the local counter-terrorism police on the basis of needing to establish if any crime had been committed and because some of the sentiments in the letter verged on things that could be regarded as extremist. The police found no immediate links to terrorism. The letter was subsequently referred on to central government departments. It was, at that stage, felt that the letter exposed issues serious enough to warrant deeper investigation.

There were various discussions at local and national levels and a number of reviews were set up to explore what (if anything) was happening. Ofsted (the national body for inspecting education) was sent into a number of schools, some of which had only recently been inspected and judged to have good management in place.

Some of the schools were under the control of Birmingham City Council, as the local authority. The rest had converted to Academy status, independent of the local authority and run under contract by the national government Department for Education.

The whole episode attracted considerable media interest, over an extended period of time. It is hard to believe that some of the issues raised were of significance to Birmingham alone, but since the letter (and its reported activities) arose within Birmingham the episode became labelled the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The daily news repetition of that label, in an essentially negative context, created a degree of damage to the reputation of the city as a whole and, to some local communities, it began to feel like a form of Islamophobia – particularly when the Secretary of State for Education appointed the former head of counterterrorism to head up the government’s review.

This article:

  • Looks at the wider historic factors around the issue.
  • Asks if it could all have been foreseen and prevented from developing as a big issue
  • Reviews the ability of language to clarify or cloud the issues.
  • Sets out the core issues
  • Looks at the outcomes from the various reviews, inspections and investigations
  • Explores the puzzles/issues raised and insights gained
  • Asks is this the end of the Affair, or are there similar beliefs and practices still at play – and how would anyone know?

The full article can be read here: Trojan Horse lessons


Employability programmes: Getting the best outcomes for learners

Employability programmes are seen as being to improve those basic generic skills that employers are looking for, and which are likely to help the person secure initial employment and maintain ongoing employment. Sometimes employability programmes supplement these generic skills with access to more vocationally-specific training and awareness. Sometimes there is heavier emphasis on the practicalities of sorting out a way forward for each participant, or dealing more substantially with underlying issues of attitudes and motivations.

There are a range of people for whom employability is seen as a key learning need. Whilst employability courses are often thought of as being for young people disengaged from regular routes to employment, this is not always the case. There are also young people who are motivated, and on track, but simply lack some simple skills or knowledge relating to the world of work. An employability group may contain a variety of people. Programmes may thus need to be flexible enough to be able to meet a range of needs.

This article outlines the features of successful employability programmes. Read more

Can Twitter be a useful source of knowledge? Thinking about Cities through Twitter.

When I was establishing the forward thinking research section of the website ( ) I had in mind a number of strands of thinking that I wanted to take further. These were broadly related to my pre-existing interests in learning, social and community behaviours, public developments and so on. The site declared that Forward Thinking Developments had an interest in a broad range of topics linking:

  • complexity – and how this related to managing and developing social outcomes
  • learning across distributed networks; on-demand learning; outcome-focused learning; informal learning; learning cities
  • user-determined services; what constitutes ‘expertness’
  • links between myriads of small actions and larger-scale public processes
  • nature of evidence, causality, leverage, models
  • nature of progress; why things aren’t as good as they can be -leadership

‘Research’, like so many other notions, can mean a variety of things to different people. Research is increasingly linked to a need to produce useful outcomes – often with commercialism in mind, or with policy direction in mind. Whilst ‘really useful’ research is important there is also a place for research-type activities that are undertaken for no immediate gain, for playfulness, simply because a puzzle has presented itself. Such activities have value if they stimulate curiosity and provide different ways of seeing our social world.

One of the initial interests, via the website, was how to explore the kinds of things that a modern complex city (like Birmingham, UK) might need to know more about if it is to really flourish.

In this context, some work was already underway on how Birmingham operated and might further develop as a city (not so much in terms of built environment, urban layout – more in terms of relationships, ways of seeing the city, capabilities etc).

A different section of website was concerned with various forms of writing. A subset of this was Place-based Writing (loosely defined) with an early thinkpiece summary on Space and Place. This connected with the city research strand through the concept of placemaking.

Relatively late in the day I was also discovering the various uses of social media (in relation to writing) and having got to grip, in a very basic way, with Twitter was beginning to see its values in many ways. I started to wonder about the value of Twitter as a means of study, as a source of knowledge. By this I mean something more than information (of which Twitter is a very good source) and something less than deep understanding (of the kind one might get from a substantial graduate/post-graduate course of focused study).

In what ways might Twitter be a good source of knowledge about any particular topic? The real value of Twitter, as with other forms of social media, is its immediacy. What gets put up on Twitter is more contemporary (happening right now) rather than historical (last week’s story); is more current (minute by minute/ day by day thoughts) rather than established (things packaged into a lengthy course); is more broad-ranging (contributors from a variety of people across the world) rather than institutional (contributors from experts within the same organisation).

Twitter, as a possible source of knowledge, is open-ended and not centrally managed. The scale of what is available is potentially overwhelming. The very nature of Twitter means that tweets up there are partial, fragmentary and often idiosyncratic. The 140 character limit means that fuller explanations rely on clicking through to articles. The words written on Twitter each day would, as an estimate, fill a 10 million page book – with a new one written the next day, and the next. Faced with all of that, where might one start in order to begin to pull out learning in a sense-making way? Having settled on a learning topic, eg ‘Cities’, what would be the most productive way of getting sense out of the range, scale, volume and variability of Twitter?

The puzzle was simple: As an interested non-specialist, would there be a way to use Twitter to research current ideas around Cities?

Some prior thinking needed to be done. Was I interested in all cities or just in larger, more complex ones? I had already produced an early paper on cities and adult basic skills, which outlined the very varied nature of places that were cities: Old mercantile places; old ecclesiastical places; old industrial places etc of various sizes. ‘City’, after all, is simply a designation and there are new cities that have recently been produced simply by a change of nomenclature. Although interested in all cities I was really only interested in larger ones, that were not peculiar examples because of being capital cities, and which were not such huge megacities that they had particular dominant features because of their sprawl.

Through previous work I had become familiar with Core Cities; Eurocities; city regions – and general reading around the pull of megacities, and the idea that city/city links can be as important or more important that city/nation links. I had already noted the annual league tables for leading cities/top cities based on various measures of quality of life and adequacy of infrastructure.

I had done some work on Birmingham as a Learning City (and developed a framework for assessing the extent to which Birmingham was in reality a learning city). In my reading I had come across various categories, associations and labels for cities: smart cities, resilient cities, innovating cities, connected cities, learning cities, cities with a clear sense of place ???. and I had been involved in conversations about the extent to which cities might become more capable, well-governed, engaging/engaged, decisive, understanding, tolerant, and so on. A lot of this may simply have been mere semantics, but words are important, language still matters. Words shape perspectives; perspectives influence behaviour; behaviours influence outcomes.

If this was my starting point, how might Twitter take my understanding any further forward?

The flow of tweets is endless and relentless. How could I set about managing the flow to make it useful to my puzzle? What was a reasonable period to select for this exploration – maybe initially 6-12 weeks? Would that be an adequate period to open up access to interesting content around topics related to cities?

Were there productive routes into that 10million page/day equivalent? What might I do to maximise my chances of coming across the right mix of stuff that would leave me feeling that I had learned something substantial about cities? I already had an existing, if somewhat limited, Twitter network that I was following but what was the best way to extend this to capture city-knowledge and still keep the exercise manageable?

Some of my Twitter contacts were being followed because they were key figures in urban development/urban studies. Tracking back to see who they themselves were following gave me a wider range of people to follow. Searching down Twitter lists produced other leads for me to keep an eye on. These flagged up some conferences that were about to happen and which covered various dimensions of cities, and which could easily be followed using the # hashtag for that conference.

This probably wasn’t all that was on Twitter re cities in the chosen period. It was simply what showed up on the slice of tweets that I could see. It did, however, produce a sufficient volume of articles, opinions and links for me to gather around 400 pages of notes re relevant knowledge over a12 week period. This was edited down into a 30 page article:

Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes


A number of trends for cities in the near future were identified. Feeding these back into the hashtag system of Twitter would open up a new range of explorations, but I am content to leave that for some other time or some other person. For me, this current exploration has demonstrated the extent to which a selective use of Twitter might be a useful learning tool for any topic.

Flourishing neighbourhoods: what contribution can learning make?

One key concern in the regeneration of Birmingham over recent years has been that of creating economic prosperity for residents whilst also creating flourishing neighbourhoods.

These flourishing neighbourhoods are seen as small localities, each with its own distinct sense of place; where people are relatively happy to live; where public and private services are well delivered; where there is a strong network of activity and were residents feel that they have some degree of influence over their lives and there is a sense of hope for a positive future.

A number of managers from different agencies, each with their own differing concern for neighbourhood renewal in Birmingham, explored what a flourishing neighbourhood might look like in terms of learning, and established what data might be needed to substantiate this.

A neighbourhood might be considered to be flourishing, in terms of learning, when:

There are large numbers of families in which children are given an early learning start:

  • children have access to high quality learning experiences 0-3, in the home, in the community and in early learning organisations
  • there are sufficient pre-school childcare places, including well-resourced, well- nursery places for all children wishing them (age 3-5)
  • libraries and other community venues are well equipped and welcoming to families with children 0-5
  • additional support is available to specific groups and families (such as those in hostels; refugee/asylum seeking families; those wanting to develop bilingual skills in young children; those in need of parenting support or advice; young children in public care etc)
  • children enter school with adequate levels of language, literacy and a sense of number – as well as good emotional, social and behavioural skills.

There is high quality primary and secondary education available to young people who live in the neighbourhood

  • there are sufficient school places in, or close to, the locality
  • schools are reported as being of high quality, by internal and external reviews
  • pupils readily attend school and are happy in schools which are secure, attractive and welcoming
  • schools are well staffed, and have good resources and facilities across the curriculum
  • schools act as reliable information, access and referral routes to other opportunities and services
  • parents are able to support their children’s learning

There are interesting opportunities available out of schools:

  • there is a variety of well used youth opportunities re leisure, art, sport, technology, citizenship, culture etc
  • specialist 1:1 or small group support services exist for young people
  • young people are involved in local decision-making
  • libraries, supplementary schools etc are linked to mainstream schools and are well-equipped and well-staffed
  • there is good access to ICT facilities in the home and in the community
  • there are supported opportunities re mentoring, challenge, taking on community roles – by, and for, young people

There are high levels of skills achievement across all groups (11-25)

  • young people have access to significance, being able to define and implement a valuable set of activities for themselves
  • there are no substantial gaps in achievement levels between different groups
  • achievement rates at 11, 16, 19 are relatively high
  • there are high proportions of people qualified at level 3 and level 4
  • young people needing additional support know who to turn to
  • young people make the transition from learning at 14 to continuing learning, in work training etc by age 19
  • there are high levels of functional literacy, language, numeracy and ICT skills post-16

There are sufficient, appropriate opportunities to continue learning post-16

  • libraries and adult learning venues are well staffed and well stocked with appropriate materials
  • learning is available via a variety of loosely-linked organisations; in a variety of forms; and via a range if organisations
  • next-step learning is accessible in terms of place, time, by ICT etc
  • there are local training opportunities for adults wishing to take on community roles or be involved in community activities
  • there are people who are sufficiently motivated about learning, that they act as learning advocates
  • there is readily available information about learning opportunities
  • there are ways of learning that can happen anywhere/anytime
  • there are wide opportunities for families to learn together at a range of community sites

Throughout the neighbourhood there is an environment rich in stimulation and opportunity

  • good use is made of media and ICT, for own-time learning
  • people seek out opportunities for change and improvement; people take responsibility for own learning
  • there are openings for creativity and problem solving
  • area looks beyond the immediate, tries to get a sense of the bigger picture
  • homes and community venues are seen as places that stimulate learning
  • there are opportunities (for all ages) to learn to be healthy, to be safe, to be ‘green’, to be involved, to be employable etc
  • learning is related to art, sport, culture, spirituality, academic knowledge etc
  • organisations in the area link up to support learning
  • there is easy local access to the wider sets of social resources

There is a valuing of learning and of the variety of cultures

  • there is promotion of learning as well as courses, programmes, and groups
  • ‘achievement for all’ is celebrated
  • there is an expectation that provision will be high quality
  • each learning opportunity is strongly able to create a further desire to learn
  • draws on resources within different sectors; reflects a diversity of cultures and traditions
  • learning is seen as a valuable tool – as a solution not a problem
  • people learn from each other and see themselves as having something to teach others

The above focused on the links between learning and flourishing at the neighbourhood level. There was acknowledgement that there are other factors associated with Flourishing (not least around employment, income, occupation etc) and that some of the driving influences operate at the broader city or national level. At the same time the development of this potential framework was helpful in a number of ways:

  • to feed into discussions about measurement of progress towards flourishing neighbourhoods (not only in terms of contributing to Birmingham as a learning city, but also contributing to the wider considerations of Birmingham as a safe place, an environmentally sustainable place, a healthy place, an economically secure place, and a place with good housing and transport etc).
  • to advise local decision-makers about the best investments of local development money
  • to feed into local planning mechanisms, in terms of what are the puzzles (in terms of learning) for each area and what might the solutions be.

Birmingham: recent development activity relating to reading and writing

This article was produced at the same time as a talk given as part of Birmingham’s Book festival. It provided the audience with a summary overview of the diverse range of ways that Birmingham had been bringing about changes to levels of all-age reading and writing across the city. Most of the activities were whole-city changes to the way mainstream learning and teaching was delivered across Birmingham. Many were initiatives ‘Made in Birmingham’ that subsequently went national (and, in a few cases, international). The momentum behind the developments was created, and driven forward, jointly by the several major public services acting in partnership, since 1995, under the Birmingham Core Skills Development banner. The article can be downloaded here: Birmingham reading and writing developments

Where is all this reading and writing taking us?

This is the text of a talk given to the Birmingham Book Festival. It looks at the development of reading and writing over the ages, and the speed with which things are developing. It projects forward to speculate on what things might look like in the near future. There is a comparison of levels of reading ability and levels of writing ability in Birmingham. There is a brief look at the connections between reading/writing and teaching/learning and the links between those skills and society in general. The full article can be down loaded here: Where is all this reading and writing taking us?

Family Learning: Can it promote resilience in children and young people?

This article summarises the thinking that links family learning, resilience and the closing of educational gaps. It is based on some overview research commissioned by Core Skills Developments in Birmingham (UK). Insights are offered about how children can become motivated individuals. When educational settings actively engage parents directly in the learning and development of their children, and support parental involvement in learning in the home, children and young people are able to achieve greater attainments.

The report – final version can be downloaded here.

Making all lessons more learner-friendly

In any group of learners there will be significant differences in the way that they best work. Teachers will want to reflect learning styles that take account of dyslexia, dyscalculia, and so on across the spectrum of learning differences. It is important to look positively on how the opportunities created by these ways of thinking relate to learning; but at the same time to also help minimise any difficulties that can get in the way of effective learning.

Learners will process information in different ways and have different levels of awareness of sequencing of words and letters, and links between sounds and words. Others may have little sense of number relationships. In particular cases this should lead to an in-depth assessment of specific learning needs. In general, however, there are practices that can be followed with all groups of learners that will give underpinning support to those with any level of difficulty.

There is no one specific set of activities that will meet the needs of everyone, given how different people’s needs are. There may, however, be relatively simple things that can be built into all learning situations and which will make it easier for all learners. These include the following:

1. Some general approaches, such as:

  • avoiding labelling; comparison with others.
  • avoiding undue pressure; discuss things that are found difficult;
  • recognising skills and abilities that exist, not simply focusing on difficulties and errors.
  • trying to identify those factors that seem to have biggest impact on learning. Use errors made as clues to how the learner is dealing with information presented. Look for patterns of errors.
  • asking learners about any issues they have identified for themselves; they are often the expert in their own patterns of learning
  • having high but realistic, expectations of success
  • acknowledging the effort put in by the learner
  • recognising that some people need to do things in a different way (because of ways different brain work) i.e. not a matter of simply ‘working harder’.
  • understanding that (for some learners) daydreaming, visualisation, fidgeting and fiddling about with things etc all have their place in an individualised approach to learning. Providing tactile resources and ‘toys’ such as stress balls may aid concentration.
  • helping some learners to benefit from self-organisation strategies such as colour coding; timelines; to-do reminders.
  • not expecting everything to be remembered in the same detail.

2. Handouts and other text materials that:

  • break up large sections of text using line breaks, bullet points, sub-headings
  • use large, clear type (e.g. 12 to 14 point); sans serif (or a learner’s preferred clear font). Usual preferred fonts are Arial, Comic Sans, Tahoma, Verdana i.e. rounded, simple fonts.
  • are printed on creamy, off-white or pastel matt paper. Avoid patterned backgrounds. The learner could try out text printed on a range of coloured paper to see which works best for that person. This could lead to a fuller assessment of colour preferences, which is a more specialist task (usually for an optometrist).
  • are left-justified; well spaced lines (e.g. 1.5 spacing)
  • avoid italics; whole word capitalisation
  • avoid underlining (which changes the visual shape of letters)
  • avoid abbreviations and acronyms
  • are written in clear, succinct style
  • have space lines between paragraphs to separate ideas into different blocks of text
  • use headings, bullet points, lists, numbers, indents to give structure to the document
  • have some text within borders (but avoiding text-boxes) could help
  • accompany text with simple pictures or line diagrams if this helps with clarification.?? Using charts and diagrams to outline the bigger picture
  • use colours to highlight different key aspects
  • have short lines; make sure sentences don’t begin at end of a line
  • avoid starting new page mid-sentence

Even better may be to have text in digital format. This allows the learner to select their own preferred font, size, spacing, colour of text and background; and to be able (with text reader software) to isolate difficult words, to select key passages, to highlight to help reinforce word recognition; to link to an electronic dictionary.


3. If a learner needs to see the whole picture first (why things are being learnt, how new knowledge relates to what they already know, and how any parts relate together), then it will be beneficial to:

  • discuss the subject; whole topic; whole text before looking at any detail
  • explain the purpose of the overall task and how it is relevant to the learners own situation, before getting into specific instructions
  • use mind maps or spider diagrams
  • use story boards or flow diagrams for learners who still like to see a sequence in what they plan
  • go from particular concrete examples to more abstract generalisations when trying to draw general conclusions
  • Provide a context for learning; make it relevant; involve learners in process; let learners know how they are doing.

4. As far as is practicable, teaching and learning should use a range of techniques (and avoid persistent repetition of methods that have failed with that learner in the past). The menu could include:

(a) Support for learning

  • 1:1 support; recognising that learners are not all the same and that some may need additional specific input
  • access to highlighters; tape recorders; lined coloured paper; pre-drawn blank mind maps
  • access to text-to-speech software; voice-recognition software; electronic dictionaries
  • use of computers to enable planning and redrafting
  • use of colour coding for resources; using different colours for different tasks
  • adding mime and gesture to words

(b) General approaches to learning

  • Keeping instructions short and well sequenced
  • only small amounts of new information introduced at any one time
  • making the most of a learner’s high interest or passion in a topic as a vehicle for learning
  • multi-sensory (auditory, visual, kinaesthetic) methods. Using both a varied range with the group and some work differentiated or personalised to preferred styles
  • supporting use of humour, colour, stories, images (remembering that each child will be different in their response to these)
  • opportunities to learn by trying as well as being told
  • use of role play; use of games (e.g. to consolidate vocabulary)
  • use of pictures and diagrams to give clues
  • same content organised and presented in several different ways
  • no disconnected rote learning but linking to things already known. This is not the same as maintaining routine and repetition in learning, which may still be important
  • not having to copy from a book or screen; little use of worksheets
  • key words selected from text and taught, within the overall context; building a bank of key words related to the topic
  • pointing out patterns where these exist. Stressing any patterns or visual features to the words; stress also any interesting auditory patterns
  • grouping information and linking to a visual image, use of mind maps, flow diagrams, story boards
  • opportunities for rehearsing, repeating, practising; opportunity to check back on facts and instructions
  • opportunities to try out strategies to boost memorising, for example mnemonics, jokes, story-telling, and active visualisation
  • learning tasks that are given immediate practical application

(c) Giving feedback

  • prompts and specific feedback given, as soon as possible
  • feedback on some meta-processes, about how an individual best learns, e.g. ‘You usually confuse ‘b’ and ‘d’; so check back for these’
  • not overloading feedback with corrections
  • not using sarcasm

(d) Internal/external conversations

  • frequent opportunities for learners to verbalise their understandings and rationales for the strategies they use to solve problems.
  • Opportunities for each learner to talk to another learner about what they are doing.
  • Encouraging learners to talk before and after tasks to reinforce understandings

(e) Practising writing and reading

There are many things that can be suggested re improving reading and writing. Some commonly recurring ones include:

  • reading and writing linked to meaningful contexts (rather than approached as an abstract exercise)
  • taking time to find out what strategies for reading and writing work best
  • providing some structured teaching of how sounds and letters are linked, where this is appropriate; deliberate teaching of literacy skills
  • use of regular practice times
  • practising sentence jigsaws, where ends or beginnings of cut up sentences are colour coded
  • using writing frames; use of diaries as support
  • consistent build-up of continuous cursive writing, in a flow to improve speed, on lined paper
  • reconstructing cut up text by matching to clear pictures already in sequence
  • ‘look, say, cover, write, check’ method to learn spellings (alongside other methods) to ensure a routine for consolidating learning into long-term memory
  • practising sequencing; segmentation; categorisation; identifying patterns; rhymes and alliterations; exploring words and the differences between them
  • re-reading of familiar texts to consolidate reading strengths
  • reading collaboratively, in pairs or small groups
  • providing lots of opportunities for daily practice, reading daily, reading together or alongside a tape


This overview has been drawn from a range of sources and sets out the commonly-recurring pieces of advice about what every teacher can be doing with every group of learners in order to open up learning more. It has been shared with a number of agencies whose prime focus is supporting learners.

It is a set of prompts to be reflected upon. It is a thinking tool rather than a checklist. Most learners need a range of approaches. In trying to cover generalised approaches, it does not remove the need for some learners to have access to more specific assessment and support.