Generating ideas in ‘Learning Agreement Time’

‘an idea’ by aloshbennett

For some time we have been working on ‘Learning Agreement Time’, an initiative where we spend the first hour of every school day working on co-constructed projects, with the children directing the learning. After experimenting with different models, we are currently working on a ‘provocation’ model, where we bring a theme or an interesting this to the children to inspire them to explore and define their projects.

Last week my colleague Nick Cooper found a really interesting video on the BBC website briefly sharing some spy gadgets from the second world war. We decided to use this as a stimulus for a project, and collected a selection of YouTube videos about gadgets, and some websites of real and toy gadgets for the pupils to browse.

As we have a soft start to the day, the first session began with an opportunity for the pupils to explore these websites on their net books. Once everyone had arrived we darkened the room, and watched the videos. This was followed for some time for excited talking about what they had seen so far.

This session then moved on to mind mapping the ideas that the children had come up with in response to the provocation. To me, this is the most crucial stage of what we are doing with negotiated learning and co-construction. The idea that we had come up with as adults was that the pupils could design and make their own spy gadgets, thinking about their functions and how they could perhaps hide spy functions within normal objects, or make devices multi-function.

However, what is crucial to me is that we do not impose that idea upon the children, or even try and lead them to it. As adults we may, and should have, in mind possible lines of development from the provocation. However, we need to be truly open to what the children bring to this in terms of their own experiences and knowledge, and let the possibilities naturally unfold.

This is hard to plan for, and it is also hard to create a situation that is structured enough that the children are not lost, but free enough that they can express possible ideas and interests even they are not easily quantifiable inti a concrete ‘project plan’. As a teacher I find you have to be really receptive to where the children are going with their thinking, and use questioning to bring out the interests without structuring them into the way you want them to go.

It would have been easy to get the class to mind map lots of different gadgets and then tell them they could make whatever they wanted. That is choice but it is not, to my mind, negotiated learning. That kind of structure leaves little room for the true interests to come out, and the connections with other learning to be made. Once you remove this need to structure, and create an ethos where any idea is a possible lead to learning then the really interesting and exciting ideas come out.

The mind mapping exercise is really just an activity to get the pupils to talk through their responses, and some very interesting ones came out. One girl expressed that she had read somewhere how to make invisible ink, and a discussion started about how this might be done, and what it would be useful for. Another boy said that he had been reading a about spies a few weeks ago, and went to the book corner to find it. A group of us started looking through it, and found some information on invisible ink, but also a photograph of the enigma machine. This prompted a really interesting discussion about codes and why you might use them, and there was obviously a strong interest in how the machine could have worked. I quizzed them a little about what they knew about this, and we ended up having a long discussion involving most of the class about the enigma machine and the bombing of Coventry, which opened another avenue for historical enquiry.

The next stage was to capture all of the ideas and interests that had been going on around the room, which we recorded on the IWB. Eventually we had the themes of gadgets themselves, invisible ink, codes, and the history of spying including the second world war and the cold war, all of which we then developed into projects that different groups worked on. One group worked on exploring invisible ink, one on cracking and creating codes, one on designing gadgets, and another simply spent the time exploring and discussing history books related to the cold war, which they independently decided to write up in their history books without any teacher instruction to do so.

This resulted in a project far richer, and far more attuned to the children’s interests than if we had over anticipated what these might be and imposed a structure on the projects early on. As teachers we are often so caught up with pre-planning and structuring learning, that it is daunting to start the week with little idea as to where it could be going. However, I really believe that with some anticipation, genuinely interesting provocations, and an openness to really explore the children’s ideas in a way that is not pressured for results, hugely beneficial co-constructed learning can happen. The next stage, and the next big challenge, is making sure that the statutory curriculum objectives and standards we are required reach can be rigerously married with this child centred approach and the level of engagement and love for learning it produces.


9 responses to “Generating ideas in ‘Learning Agreement Time’”

  1. N Davies Avatar

    This is very interesting and sounds great! You say the first hour of every day is devoted to this…how do you make sure you cover all the requirements of the NC when you are “losing” 5 hours a week? I have enough trouble fitting everything in as it is!

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for the comment. The aim is that part of the negotiation is to include National Curriculum coverage in the work that the children are doing. This can take many forms, for example some of our provocations have been based on History or Geography units. We could also cover Literacy objectives through write ups or writing tasks inspired by the provocations or the resulting projects. This provocation was quite 'out there', but often they are more curriculum focused.

      This is all based on the thinking of Esme Capp and Woorana Park school in Australia, there is more info on the National College website if you are interested:

  2. frogphilp Avatar

    This is an excellent approach. Hopefully if the coalition government bring in a slimmed-down curriculum it should be possible to do more of this sort of stuff. I have a couple of questions – firstly how are you managing the search activity? Secondly how do you include the children who are really far behind (like more than two years or a whole NC level)?

    Our creative agent has been encouraging me for a year or so to visit Robin Hood and again you've given me another reason why I should do so. Well done!

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks! I am not sure what you mean by the 'search activity'. The great thing about this kind of work is that children tend to access it at the level at which they feel comfortable, which is usually linked to their achievement/attainment. Our challenge as teachers is to make sure they are challenging themselves through questioning and intervention when necessary/beneficial. That is all part of the 'negotiation' of the learning.

  3. Iain Crosbie Avatar

    We have just started a similar thing in Y4 in our school based on my observations in your school. There isn't currently an hour available to put towards this which disappoints me as the pupils are already getting right into it.

    I look forward to reading your comments to the previous two comments, although I also have a couple of my own. Firstly, is the negotiation always done as a class and the work in groups? And secondly, what happens if one activity comes to its natural end before the others? Do they start something new?

    Keep up the good work, Oliver. You continue to inspire and challenge me and I thank you for that!

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks Iain, glad you find these things useful. I find sometimes even an hour at a time isn't enough when we get into more involved projects!

      It doesn't have to be done as a class or always in groups. Our last provocation was around imaginary worlds, and a group of boys were not really into it and they decided to follow a completely different path based on our science work on habitats. It does make it harder to manage when there are very different things going on though. If one activity comes to an end before the others and there is only a little time left I tend to try to extend it by getting children to look for next steps, reflect in detail about what they have done or write it up in some way. If there is lots of time left then I might look at encouraging them to come up with another activity. Some children in the past have done things individually, but they tend to prefer to work in a group, and this really helps in terms of discussing what they are doing and defining what they are aiming for.

  4. jfb57 Avatar

    Really interesting post! I'm going to send it to some colleagues who are working on a creative curriculum that starts with the children. (aka the head's office)

  5. Claire Avatar

    I really, really like the sound of this. I think I would feel the same concern (too strong a word, but all that comes to mind right now) about achieving the right balance between freedom and useful structure. Still, you have to just be brave and go with it don’t you! It actually has lots of similarities with a P4C enquiry: teacher provides a stimulus, children interpret it, come up with discussion questions and decide where the enquiry will go.

    1.  Avatar

      That’s really interesting, have been meaning to look into P4C for a while. The idea really stemmed from Early Years concepts around Reggio Emilia and The EYFS.

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