'Hautlieu’s General Studies programme was decades ahead of its time in developing student thinking capabilities'

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By Dennis Sale

In my previous column I detailed the main educational purpose, aims, and content of the General Studies curriculum at Hautlieu school in the 1970s. I argued that this curriculum, while highly relevant at that time, is an even more critically important educational focus in this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world that we now face.

In the second column I outline, explain, and illustrate the pedagogic approach (eg instructional strategies) employed, and what makes them, from an evidence-based approach, so impactful for developing students thinking capabilities. Such skills are now deemed central to universal 21st century competencies.

  • The Broad Instructional Strategy: Blending evidence-based methods

There is no one single educational method for promoting high attainment and engagement – no ‘holy grail’ or ‘silver bullet’ for effective teaching and learning. However, as I have documented in previous columns, we are amassing increasing validated knowledge relating to how humans learn, what teaching approaches and methods work best and why (eg Petty, 2009; Hattie & Yates, 2014; Sale, 2020). Collectively, the research evidence is now providing us with a heightened pedagogic understanding of the various facets of highly effective teaching and, when this is used creatively in context, it will optimise attainment and engagement for a wider range of student groups.

We are now able to identify what specific methods seem to be most effective for high attainment, as well as the underlying psychological principles of learning that facilitate deep learning in long-term memory and neural wiring in the brain. It is the thoughtful blending of the most effective methods to meet the desired learning outcomes that is most powerful in the learning stakes, both for attainment and high levels of engagement.

Both Petty and Hattie have used the analogy of a Russian doll to illustrate this process. A Russian doll is a set of different-sized dolls, usually around five, and they fit one inside another from the smallest to the biggest.

When done thoughtfully, this produces a powerful overall strategy, which Hattie (2009), referred to as Whole Class Interactive Teaching. Essentially this is a teacher-managed strategy that includes a range of effective active learning methods, such as questioning (focused on specific thinking skills), discussions, challenging goals, peer interaction and assessment, advanced organisers and feedback. The approach fosters a dynamic, structured, as well as a flexible learning environment, that fosters both high cognitive engagement and the retention of key concepts, what is fundamental to building understanding in long-term memory.

  • The components of the Hautlieu Russian doll

Firstly, in the physical environment, the seating arrangements were circular or U-shaped to ensure direct face-to-face visual orientation and encourage participation. Most important, however, was the interpersonal style employed by the teacher, which centred on openness, being non-judgmental, authentic, and trusting. This must be made explicit to students, modelled, and reinforced in teachable moments. Of course, professional judgment is key here, and so is knowing your students – good teachers do this anyway.

The session starts with an advanced organiser, which structures the session – the topic to be analysed and evaluated, and the methods and human conduct principles to be employed. Students are then presented with short reading extracts and key fact sheets that illustrate the different perspectives embedded in the stimulus material on the topic to be discussed.

It is imperative that this material is balanced in terms of the perspective involved, and that the facts are most current and validated. It should be sufficiently comprehensive but as concise as possible. In today’s rich media context, resources can include short video segments – in fact, any other media that fits time and context.

After, a given period of reading and digesting the source data – usually between 10-15 minutes – students are then asked for their opinions on what they have read, and what they think and feel about the topic. The role of the teacher here is one of employing the full range of good facilitation skills, which is a challenging but essential skill set to maximise learning effectiveness. Such skills involve quick thinking, listening, questioning techniques, being neutral, staying on track, paraphrasing, and making summaries.

  • The power of questions

The skilful use of questions provided both structure and focus for the session and, most importantly, the means to develop the key thinking skills that are essential for building understanding. As Anthony Robins, a world-famous success coach, wrote: ‘Thinking itself is nothing but the process of asking and answering questions.’

Initially, the focus is on critical thinking skills, such as analysing, comparing and contrasting, making inferences and interpretations, and the evaluation of the stimulus resources presented in relation to one’s existing beliefs about the topic. These thinking skills need to be explicitly taught, modelled, and reinforced over time – until they become the routine ‘language of thinking’. For example, if I ask students to evaluate data on the topic being discussed, they will already know that this involves analysis and comparison and contrast, making inferences and interpretations, and now requires identifying, prioritising, and applying criteria to the decision-making process.

Critical thinking skills are supplemented with creative thinking, which essentially involves generating possibilities (ie many different types and, hopefully, some novel possibilities). Also, the teacher will pause the conversation at some point and ask students to reflect on their thinking – what is referred to as metacognition (monitoring and evaluating one’s own thinking to seek thoroughness of the thinking process and negotiate potential biases and distortions arising from deep personal beliefs and emotional responses). Collectively, this is Good Thinking – and it is a highly desirable competence.

Periodically, in a session, and especially across sessions, these thinking processes are made explicit to enable students to see connectedness in thinking across different topics. Such practice is fundamental to the development of these skills.

In summary, this is a Russian doll of some elegance, fully evidence-based from the field of cognitive psychology, and highly practical for teaching professionals to experiment with and find variations of format and method combinations that suit their student profiles and desired outcomes. Teachers must be aware of their own valuations, beliefs, and emotions in doing this work to ensure that they are not systematically, even subliminally, manipulate students to form ‘status quo’ conclusions.

Most teachers will want to ensure a strong sense of ‘best objectivity’ – even though they may disagree vehemently with the views of some students. For those teachers who cannot do this or refuse to do – well that’s another issue. Students will only change their minds – reframe on key issues – if they are taught to think well, and all that this entails. Telling them that they are wrong (unless the factual data is clearly apparent) or it’s bad to think like this, as well as displaying emotional negativity towards them, may get situational acquiescence – but beware of the real consequences of this in the longer term.

I was privileged to work with Cyd Le Bail, head of general studies and the sixth form at Hautlieu School in the 1970s, on this project for several years. It was truly inspirational for me. He certainly shaped the direction of my professional development, though I only saw this in the more recent decades. Hindsight is always 20/20 – right!

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as an adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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