Dear Postgrads: my Q&A session with 190 Primary PGCE students

Earlier this week 190 Primary PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education) students from a leading London university Zoomed in to learn about the principles and evidence for collaborative decision-making (CDM) in the classroom. This letter is my response to their thought-provoking questions, a few of which I was able to address in my seminar.

Dear Postgrads,

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to talk to you about CDM and to have the benefit of your comments and questions.

Some of you with experience of CDM commented that you have already seen first-hand how children that are a part of decision making are ‘way more engaged’, ‘develop their confidence’ and ‘are able to explain why they made those decisions.’

Those of you who were asking for further examples of CDM will find numerous examples in my book It’s Our School, It’s Our Time

Your questions

Does giving a greater voice to students necessarily reduce the voice of teachers too?

Quite the opposite. What researchers have found, and my own experience backs this up, is that the teachers who fear losing power are usually those who have never tried CDM. Those who try it rarely experience a loss of power. Indeed, teachers using CDM actually gain power in the form of greater cooperation and respect from pupils and a heightened sense of self-worth. In Chapter 8 of my book I explain that power is not a ‘zero sum game’, that it, when teachers choose to give their pupils more power, it doesn’t mean that they lose their own. CDM is not a ‘laissez-faire’ approach, nor is it ‘handing all the power over to pupils’ it is teaching them how to make decisions together that take other people’s needs into account. Great question though! back to questions

Are we talking about children making significant decisions over their future education and lives?

CDM is collaboration around decisions that affect the whole class, school or group, not just the individual. The level of decision-making is limitless. You might start with CDM about whether pencil sharpener is placed in the classroom, move to decisions about which order to study science topic and eventually include pupils in making decisions about school policies and governance. That might then lead to young people being accepted as keep participants in policy decisions beyond the school walls. The skills of decision-making and the sense of agency engendered by CDM in school carries over into young people’s lives – see page 29 of It’s Our School, It’s Our Time for the research on this. Someone referred to John Dewey’s concepts of intrinsic and instrumental value. That is, an activity can have its own value (intrinsic) and can also be of value in that it contributes to some other outcome (instrumental). In my book I address CDM both as an end in itself – participation as the outcome – and as leading to other outcomes such as improved discipline, achievement etc. and offer ways to look at evaluating CDM through both these lenses. back to questions

How can CDM not be tokenistic?

‘Tokenism’ describes what is happening when you do something because it is expected of you, without you really believing in it. So token participation would be something that you do to tick the box, as it were, for pupil voice. I think that CDM is only tokenistic if it is done for show, or to please a manager for example.

How do you teach people to be collaborative if they are not used to practising these skills in their learning journey?

In the Early Years classrooms children have very little difficulty in practicing collaboration and it seems that the more time children spend in authoritarian classrooms, the harder they find it to respond to opportunities to participate in decision-making. A similar kind of institutionalisation goes on for teachers, and one of the teachers in my research study found the teachers he worked with as head-of-year found it harder to shed their ‘do-as-we-are-told’ mind-set than his pupils were. If you want to take things slowly, you can always choose one topic or subject to try out CDM. The long-term objective, however, is to develop a whole-school collaborative culture where will pupils and staff feel they have a voice. back to questions

How would you go about incorporating children’s requests to learn specific things e.g. children’s suggestions box?

A suggestion box is a great idea-you could then discuss with the class has suggestions can be responded to. You will find some examples in my book but there’s nothing better than creating your own with your own class.

Could CDM be incorporated into introducing new topics already planned or create specific lessons for that interest?

Ideally, CDM would be part of a whole school collaborative culture and used across all subjects. But given that most schools do not have this culture yet, there is no single right way of introducing it. It really depends on your school culture and what you feel comfortable with doing with the opportunities you have. The easiest way of getting started with CDM is to incorporate into your current practice by just pausing during a lesson and asking the class, “How is this lesson going for you? Is there anything I could do right now that would make it better for you?” If you can, make it clear that this is not the same as the question, “Do you understand what you’re doing?” You will find a few examples in my book where teachers stopped a lesson that they felt was not going well, to ask the class whether they felt the same way and what could they do about it. back to questions

It’s good to listen to students, get their feedback and thoughts, but are we talking about putting students on the same level as the teacher, in terms of decision making?

That’s a great philosophical question and I’d like to hear what pupils would have to say about that in a philosophy session! If ‘on the same level’ means ‘are as important as’ then I’d say that is just what I am talking about. The fact that children aren’t as experienced as their teachers doesn’t mean that their views don’t count. In another sense, it is exactly because the children are not at the same level as their teachers (they may be half the size and a tenth of their teacher’s age) that we need their input to the curriculum. They see the world from a five- or fifteen-year-old perspective, and this is something teachers can’t do for themselves – they need their pupils’ input. back to questions

How can we give Year 1 and 2 pupils a collaborative environment when they don’t yet have the experience to draw on to inform their decision making?

Children might not have the same experience and expertise as teachers, but they are experts in their own experiences and a teacher needs to draw on these to develop optimal conditions for learning to take place. I have been amazed at how children as young as 2 or 3 respond to the opportunity to take part in decision-making. It’s also a joyful way of teaching, as children can come up with the most unexpected but powerful suggestions.

All around the Western world, the focus of attention in education is beginning to shift from teacher-centred to learner-centred approaches, oriented more strongly on whole-person-development and wellbeing than just exam results. Countries all around the world or identifying the need for shifts in classroom practice to allow skills to be developed in non-uniform ways, and encourage a link between what goes on in school and the child’s family and community.

If pupils have a choice in their curriculum might it end up being damaging to their progress?

If you are thinking about ‘progress’ in terms of passing exams, then there is enough evidence to show that the skills and self-worth children gain from continual engagement in decision-making impacts on their academic achievements. It might seem that when given the opportunity to choose what to learn, children would avoid the ‘difficult’ topics. The opposite can happen when children’s curiosity is roused and they feel a sense of agency over their own learning. back to questions

How does this work when you have 30 children with different ideas do you end up with the majority ruling what the class does?

Do you know, it is interesting how 30 children hardly ever come up with 30 different ideas. Also, the research shows that when children know they can make an impact on their own environment a) they don’t want to control everything (it takes energy and engagement to take part in CDM) and b) you might be surprised at how often what the children chose to do or change is very close to what the teacher would also like to do or change. Part of the educational value of CDM is teaching children how to balance individual needs with the needs of others in the community (in this case, their class or school community). Interestingly, teachers tell me that when they start using CDM, they start to hear voices of children who have not spoken up or aired views beforehand. My own participants told me how inclusive their pupils were once they realised they had some say about what happened in their own classroom. back to questions

How can we create a culture of collectivism in the classroom when, in society, we have focus on individualism and individual goals?

It has been said that a nation’s educational policy is dependent on the kind of a society they want. In the world of work, collaboration and cooperation are highly valued traits and some of the top independent schools recognise this and strive to develop these in their pupils. You are right to point out that there is a great deal of individualism in Western society, but there is also a growing collectivism, which has become more evident during the past year of the pandemic. Today’s pupils are tomorrow’s leaders. Let’s give all our pupils the chance to be among the best leaders. back to questions

Does CDM add to teacher workload?

CDM doesn’t make teaching easier, but it certainly makes it more effective and more enjoyable. It takes skill to collaborate, and teachers will learn this by doing it, as children will. Now that teachers have access to other teachers’ stories through my book, I hope it will be easier. The findings of my research study suggest that the hardest thing about CDM is being in a school that does not have a collaborative culture. The teachers in my study said that CDM was hard work, especially when they were taking on a class who had been used to just been told what to do all the time. They also said that involving pupils in decisions about their learning meant that they ended up covering the curriculum in less time.

What role can trainee teachers play in renewing the curriculum?

Trainee teachers, especially those on a university-based course, are well placed to apply up-to-date research findings to current practice. However, you can only make a difference if you are prepared by your training and disposition to reflect critically on the status quo. It is almost unknown for a lone teacher to challenge and change a whole school culture, and in my book, It’s Our Time, It’s Our School I have a section for those teachers who are the only teachers in the school using CDM. Even though some highly-experienced teachers complain that they have little freedom to change the curriculum, it is reported that schools are not taking up the freedoms they already have. In a conversation with a senior Ofsted inspector I learnt that inspectors are really pleased when they see schools designing curriculum that is relevant to their local population and local needs. What they also want to see is a cogent argument for why you are teaching the way you are. That is partly why I included a whole chapter on rationale and psychology in my book. back to questions

Can providing disadvantaged children with the chance to collaborate on their learning help with those feelings of not being important or not having a future?

The evidence certainly points towards that outcome. If you look in the index to It’s Our School, It’s Our Time you will see many references to disadvantage, inequality, poverty and deprivation. This reflects my interest in the role CDM plays in social justice, and the evidence-base for the importance of CDM for all children, but particularly those who start off with fewer material advantages. Some inner city schools justify their authoritarian approach by claiming that that providing disadvantaged children with a tighter framework will get them better exam results leading to better jobs, enabling the potential for a “higher quality of life. However, although some of these schools do manage to get good exam results, the skills necessary for higher education and more demanding careers are not the focus. Cambridge Professor Diane Reay is particularly critical of the way in which what she calls the ‘no excuses’ academies are placing children in a culture which prepares them for jobs where they don’t need to make collaborative decisions. back to questions

I hope that I have gone some way to answering your questions. Your questions were spot-on and I know reflect those of more-experienced teachers. Do read the book, try things out and get back to me. I will be running some follow-up seminars – subscribe to this blog to receive updates and details of future events.

I would love it if you could share your own experiences of CDM with me and other teachers through this website. Let me know if there is anything else you would like me to write an article on, or maybe even volunteer to be a guest writer!

Yours sincerely,


Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

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