Doing difficult things – climbing sideways.

When it comes to working out something difficult, I think John Donne had it right:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
My father taught me early on how tiring it is to try to walk straight up a mountain (or the hill that was to me as a child, a mountain) and how very much more efficient it is to walk in zigzags up a slope or around it until you reach the top. This takes longer, but you get there in better shape. You don’t overtax your muscles or lose your balance, but your fitness gets better as you go. How can we invent cycles of activity in the classroom which do this? What are the natural ‘hills’ and circular or zigzag paths in our subjects which we can exploit? There has been much fashion for applying cognitive and thinking skills to lessons as if they map over every single area comfortably, but perhaps we’d be better off examining the terrain of our subjects and working out what the mental strata and steps actually are, then patiently practice following them.  This would also have the distinct benefit of building our base knowledge, without which, as cognitive science research on Critical Thinking tells us, it is actually impossible for us to make replicable progress in learning to think. See D.T. Willingham, on which more in later posts, at and .
When teachers in INSETS make snorting noises if asked to try to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy to a topic to which they feel it does not apply (English and History teachers unite!), they are, without saying as much openly, intuitively rejecting the proposition that an external scaffolding of thought which is not directly related to the entomology of their subject can be worth their time applying.  Although with careful thought, or a handy tool, such as (  ) Bloom’s Taxonony really can be relevant and could solve that D.T.Willingham problem of why Critical Thinking is so hard to teach, by simply succumbing to the happy position that we might as well teach it within the relevant subject matter of our subject areas, just learning to challenge ourselves that we can ask our students to think more deeply at the higher levels of our subject matter much sooner than University. Why not in Year 7 and forever after!
Solo Taxonomy also greatly helps with the conundrum of depicting and teaching relevant ways to think to master expert levels of thought.  If you take the time to sit down and work out what the levels of understanding look like, for example in an English Literature essay ( ), it turns out that extended abstract usually works out at A/A*,  relational at B/A and multi-structural at C. Or perhaps, if this seems too abstract, we need to be finding ways that expert expeditionists in our subjects behave and practice them.  The great difficulty is how you move a student from the relational knowledge of their subject to extended abstract understanding, which is no easy matter and I begin to think is mainly a matter of interest – being sufficiently curious about how the whole subject actually works tends to do the trick, which of course entails a sense that it matters.  Or we just ask, what does an expert do and how did they get that way? I bet the answer is walking around their subject matter a lot and observing a very great deal.  So maybe our students actually need focussed sessions on skills taught in context and a hugely greater exposure to the material of our subject, since the maxim that the best geologists have seen the most rocks works with poems too.  Fine to start with easy rocks/poems. It’s looking lots and working out as you go that matters.
But of course, the one thing we shouldn’t do, is pick a smaller hill. As John Hattie has noted, it isn’t a teacher’s job to make learning easy, it is to make it difficult (the challenge of goals having a .52 effect size: ).  Challenge matters. Anyone can hop over an ant hill.

It also calls for some heart in mouth guts when you find the path isn’t there and your father just tells you to look at the horizon and run – your wellies will do the rest. When faced with the yawning river chasm below and steep heather slope above, with two expectant male members of your family facing you across the way, what do you do? Run, hope and find out all is well. You didn’t break and now you know you can bridge the gaps.  This is what observers mean when they say to teachers that it wouldn’t hurt to depart from the lesson plan if it turns out that the way the lesson pans out in the classroom requires it. Teaching life is rarely as catastrophic as Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Sound of Thunder’!

So it turns out that my favoured John Donne round and round approach is how I have thought about Teaching and Learning thus far – I’ve been happy to ‘read around’, apply my ideas in cycles and re-think them constantly, essentially going round and round but getting better all the time. Gradually within the schools I have worked at, both students and other staff have come to realise that although I may look as if I am wandering around, I am far from lost.
wander not lost
This fits with the emphasis of Action Research on taking action in a research style which transforms the learning of the students but also of oneself.  It fits with the need to take things slowly, repeat attempts and be prepared to be in it for the long haul not the quick fix.  This is what we mean when we teachers tell observers that what they saw was part of a much longer journey or arc of learning.  I think we have an opportunity with Action Research becoming more common in schools to challenge the obsession with RTCs, with the need to focus only on ‘what works’ for budget expenditure (as indeed Hattie has been used to do), with the idea that you can ‘do a project’ or ‘an intervention’ and then come out the other end with a bullet-proof method to apply subsequently. Maybe this is a feminist stance ( maybe it isn’t, but I still just want to wander around some more and chat about what I find out.
Taking the long way round, you also see a lot of good stuff along the way. Like birds you can amuse yourself by distinguishing from each other, the effect of your movements on the surroundings (even if you only hear the grasshoppers stopping and starting and never get to find out if they were a grass snake instead), and the growing sense of perspective as you get higher and the land below gets smaller in detail but bigger in scale. You learn how to observe AND you get where you want to go. This is what observers mean when they tell teachers that it’s a good idea to design lessons where the activities are the basis and excuse for chat with the teacher.
But for chat to be productive of learning on the part of the student which is more than merely surface, both the students and teacher need to be engaged in a sustained common enterprise, the values, point and worth of which each member of the classroom community knows. See Lave and Wenger for their extremely illuminating research on communities of practice and why it is a nonsense to talk about learning as separate from a community of people practicing behaviour together:  The good news is that by explaining the purpose, aligning the values of it with those of the students and applying some imagination to make the enterprise therefore both meaningful and enjoyable, participation and effectiveness will rocket, in any sphere or work.
Ultimately, to carry out this work, the patience, trust and bravery which my father wanted me to have when we were engaged in our common enterprise of hillwalking when I was a child, and indeed which my University teachers wanted me to have whilst tackling more or less all of John Donne more or less on my own, is what I would like my students to have.  So I might as well show them by being honest about my constant experiments and journey towards understanding.
And lack of pride helps when it comes to picking up the right stuff (as Katniss discovers in The Hunger Games, that great pedagogical text for our times !?!). It’s so often the case that the equipment I invented to deal with Y13’s inability to understand how poetry works in sound and vision simultaneously finds its way into my rucksack for Y8 and vice versa. They have learnt not to be proud about having a special pack – if it helps them bridge the gap, they are happy. And they have learnt to trust that if I am trying something out, it will not break them. Because I spend my time taking them up small hills which are mountains to them, going round and round, until ‘what the hill’s suddenness resists’ we ‘win so’.  Then their equipment turns out to be their increased sense of self-efficacy in that task, or skill or exercise of judgment, rather than anything otherwise concretely nameable: see Bandura’s theory on this –
To stick with the circular metaphor, but shamelessly mix my elements otherwise, the only trouble with going round and round, for a teacher, is that like the shipwreck victim who casts off from their island and paddles like mad but ends up back where they started, isolation and lack of orientation is a real problem.
How can I escape from the desert island of my classroom, the hill on which may not in itself be very much worth climbing alone? Jumping into the surf of twittergogy has been a great help, but I’ve been surprised to see how much just keeps on going around and coming around there, like circular currents leading to whirlpools of simplified understanding which make me feel as if I’m drowning in the same repeated (sometimes only half understood) fashionable ideas. I often feel as if my books at home, my personal practice and what I read on twitter are separate contradictory currents, which somehow I need to take responsibility for putting back together again.
So here I’m going to try to contribute to the circular currents in a positive way, sifting out for myself what fits together for me as I go, building myself a bigger boat out of both my books at home and what I find out here. I like the idea of the rickety sense of security and adventure that might bring! Fellow cast-aways and rickety raft builders welcome. Expect quite a bit of going round and round, observing what turns up and trying to make sense of how it all fits together.
An Lochan Uaine at the Ryvoan Pass, Gelnmore.
An Lochan Uaine at the Ryvoan Pass, Gelnmore.
Flotsam and jetsam (more on that later) at Cullen, Moray.
Flotsam and jetsam (more on that later) at Cullen, Moray.



4 thoughts on “Doing difficult things – climbing sideways.

  1. Artichoke March 1, 2015 / 8:03 pm

    A magnificent reflection – so enjoyed the examples you included. Thanks. And agree with you – there are ways you can prompt for extended abstract understanding but without “a hugely greater exposure to the material of our subject” students will not have the relational thinking to build conceptual understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. msswilson March 1, 2015 / 11:00 pm

    Thank you, Pam. Great to hear from you. Just on Friday a colleague was asking me what ‘this SOLO thing’ was all about and I was delighted to be able to pass on your map of the different levels of thinking which makes it pretty darn clear. It is very interesting to me marking mock exams right now how clear it is what levels students are working at and I’m beginning to wonder if actually A-grades should’t be a pass rate rather than C, since in English Lit in England that’s where the real understanding lies. Why do we lie to students and tell them that it’s OK to come out aiming for anything less than honestly, really understanding their text in the round? I feel convinced that people can, but for the old bugbear time.


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