Part 3: Case study: How I used Kolb’s learning cycle to improve my practice

In part 3 of this blog series, I will showcase how I have used Kolb’s learning cycle to implement the harkness strategy within my practice.

How I have used Kolb’s learning cycle this year

  1. Abstract conceptualisation theory about an aspect of teaching and learning is presented to teachers

I began by reading our school’s Development Plan for the year.  One aspect of Teaching and Learning that was identified as a focus for us was that of oracy, communication and collaboration – an area I felt I could definitely work on developing within my classroom.

I was then lucky enough to be part of the Articulation Day during our activities week – a day dedicated to Art and Oracy.  In preparation for this day, I was re-introduced to a strategy called the ‘Harkness discussion’. Two of my colleagues shared the strategy, modelled it and then utilised it with the pupils.  Having identified this specific strategy, I then started to read around the Harkness model and learn more from the available research.

(Backer states that the harkness method is ‘a dialogical student-centred style that prioritises group address of a question in common in an equal and various sequence of turns.’)

Having the luxury of time, I then decided I wanted to trial the strategy out before starting a process of implementation so I chose to have a go at using the harkness method with my year 7 class.  We had been exploring attitudes towards Elizabethan women through Shakespeare’s works and I felt there was a really good opportunity for a harkness discussion summarising what we had learnt.

I introduced the discussion to pupils, went through the harkness method and then set the discussion off whilst I tracked the talk on the visualiser for all to see.

It was really interesting.  Some pupils came completely alive and some of my more confident pupils, or so I thought really lose their voice.  At the start it was a bit of a mess – with pupils talking over one another and just randomly throwing what they thought were relevant comments out.  This was really valuable learning for me and I could clearly see why this type of discussion within the classroom needed to be practiced.  We stopped the discussion; talked about listening, responding and building and then stood back and watched the pupils flourish.

  • Active experimentationTeachers discuss how it could be adopted in their context and make plans

After giving it some thought, with a focus on choosing specifics, I felt there was real potential for the harkness method within the IGCSE programme to support the teaching of the anthology of poetry and non-fiction texts.  There were many reasons for this: 1. The IGCSE programme is very full so I thought that using the harkness strategy alongside flipped learning would be really beneficial in terms of presenting a substantial amount of content quickly. 2. It seemed like an incredibly good way to foster pupil independence in their approach to unseen texts. 3. It felt like a good strategy to use to encourage the development of inference and interpretation through discussion.

The second part of considering how it can be adopted is in making the plans so I spent some time putting together two sets of resources.  Firstly, the flipped learning: a booklet fronted with a conceptual question then two copies of the text to be discussed.  The first one for pupils to use to jot down their personal reflections after their first reading of the text and the second for them to annotate whilst they watched a Loom video produced by me on the text, in response to the conceptual question.  The expectation being that pupils would arrive at our harkness lesson with their own thoughts and the necessary knowledge to be able to hold an effective discussion on the text.

The second resource was the harkness lesson.  Initially, this lesson had a very simple structure: a retention starter (evident in all my lessons); a recap of the conceptual question; a reminder of the homework; the 5-6 questions that pupils were going to discuss in the harkness group and the identified pupils for who were going to be in the centre. My initial focus was on generating discussion and trying to sustain this.

  • Concrete experiencethe theory is put into practice and its effects are monitored by the teacher or the observer.

This lesson went under a process of deliberate practice, with a focus on generating sustained group discussion for 3-4 consecutive weeks. Across this time, I made minor tweaks until I reached the point where I felt comfortable and confident with the practice and the quality of pupils’ response to text.

I then felt ready to bring in an instructional coach.  I chose our Oracy lead who had introduced the method to me and modelled its use because I trusted her expertise in providing meaningful and supportive feedback that would enhance my practice.  In fact, when she came to observe me, she offered four incremental actions.  She suggested that

  1. I could introduce a chair and remove myself from the discussion completely to make it truly student-centred
  2. I could build in reflection time to reflect upon the quality of the discussion
  3. I could continue to develop pupils’ paralinguistic skills – for example, nodding at each other to show agreement
  4. I could utilise the pupils to develop key questions.

Although all of these suggestions were useful, I wanted only to tackle one at a time to continue to make those incremental gains so I decided to introduce the role of student chair, initially utilising my most confident orators to lead the discussion.

However, I also simultaneously sought feedback from the pupils as well, given that this was a completely new strategy for all.  Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive with many citing that although they had found the strategy intimidating to begin with, over time they felt they had developed their confidence in sharing ideas.  In addition, they reflected that they found the range of interpretations about a text really helpful in developing their own thinking.  They did have two points of improvement for me though

  1. I could include a question that had a greater examination focus to help them prepare for the exam
  2. I could ensure that the people who were in the middle also got a detailed set of notes from the lesson.

These were also simple things I could introduce – one to improve our practice and one logistical to support pupils.  I, therefore, also decided to include one question that used the Compare question stem to align with the examination series.  This also proved beneficial in terms of supporting pupil retention and their ability to make links across the texts quite early on.

  • Reflective observation – the experience of using the theory is reflected on and the impact is discussed.

After completing my deliberate practice and using the feedback from my instructional coach and the pupils to tighten my use of the harkness strategy further, I entered into a period of reflection to consider the impact of the harkness discussion.

I decided to approach this in three ways.  Firstly, I wanted the pupils to reflect upon their learning to see if the harkness lessons had been beneficial in not only supporting the students’ oracy skills but also in supporting their understanding of the core content.  I refocused pupils on our conceptual question for the term – the question that had united all of the texts studied and pupils were tasked with completing a poster summary task, in which they had to select the 3-4 texts that they felt most incited and inspired change (our conceptual focus) from the 6-7 studied.  They were able to choose who they worked with, with the task culminating in a presentation of their poster summaries to share their reflections.  It was clear to see from these poster summaries that pupils had an excellent knowledge base of the texts.

From my perspective, I was able to do two things with the process I had gone through.  The first was that having seen the work we were doing, Voice 21 approached us and asked if we would be interested in writing a case study for them outlining how we had gone about introducing the harkness strategy alongside flipped learning for their own future professional training.

Secondly, I was able to present the work I had been doing at a later INSET day with a focus on oracy.  This, in turn, has prompted other departments to consider this strategy within their own schemes of work and lesson planning.


I have many reflections about Kolb’s learning cycle.

Firstly, it has provided me with a framework to direct my own professional learning in a systematic way.  It has improved my practice by being quite methodical in the approach – learning a theory, choosing a specific group or area to focus in on, using deliberate practice, employing an instructional coaching and reviewing learning.  All of these steps have helped developed me in some way. Finally, it has been successful!  It has been a much better way to approach the anthology texts for both myself – thinking conceptually, and, for the pupils, in developing their independence and interpretation skills.

However, if we were to go back to the research, there are many reasons why a cycle like this is truly beneficial.

Enser and Enser argue that we need a fresh approach that puts the teacher back as an active agent of their own development.  So using a learning cycle like this empowers teachers to choose an area of development that they feel would most benefit them whilst also supporting whole school and departmental level objectives.

For the same reasons, it increases teacher autonomy.  Worth and Van den Brande argue that when teachers have ownership over their own developmental goals, there is greater potential for improving job satisfaction and retention.  Certainly, from a professional development perspective, it is the work that I am most proud of this year and I was elated, after having submitted what I had done to CTeach, with the feedback I received declaring this work impressive and something that has such huge potential – motivating indeed!

Finally, we have seen an increase in action research and Kennedy argues that action research as a model of CPD has been acknowledged as being successful in allowing teachers to ask critical questions of their practice.  Using a learning cycle like this has multiple benefits when we think of it as a model of ‘action research.’  Firstly, we are considering a learning theory or strategy and undertaking research into that strategy before we even beginning experimenting with it in our own classroom.  Secondly, through the process of deliberate practice and in working with an instructional coach, we are asking critical questions of ourselves and our work in the classroom.  This, in itself, can only enhance what we do as we interrogate our own practice to develop ourselves and be better.

So, to conclude, in part 1 of this blog series, I wrote about the problems with Professional Development in schools.  In part 2 I talked through Kolb’s learning cycle as a way into Professional Development either as part of a school’s approach or working individually and in part 3, I have tried to exemplify how I have used Kolb’s learning cycle to develop my own practice this year.

I hope you have found something interesting within these three posts and would love to chat about this topic further, either here or on Twitter!


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