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Blank Cheque

This is the truly student-centred approach. Although the learning targets are usually

fixed these days, the means of achieving them is completely open to negotiation. The

teacher and pupils begin with open minds and a ‘blank sheet’ and together they ask:

how shall we tackle these learning targets so that everyone has the best chance of

success? Ideas are created and choices are made together.

This approach is often perceived as the most risky, perhaps because it demands

great skill on the part of the teacher and because in the early stages it appears to take

longer than other methods. However, the rewards are great in terms of engagement

and achievement. Once the approach gets going, learning is accelerated because of

the deep understanding and investment (aka ‘ownership’) achieved by pupils during

the process of negotiation.

Blank Cheque: HOW TO DO IT


These guidelines are meant to show how the ‘Blank Cheque’ model might be used.
They are only possibilities. By its very nature this method is flexible, determined by
the needs and judgements of the students and teacher involved. While the principles
of this student-centred practice are firm (e.g. negotiation), the details of the approach
vary. In this exercise you are asked to consider the effectiveness and feasibility of the
model as described here, then to modify the approach to suit your own
circumstances.

Please note that the practical strategies which are underlined are fully described in
Sections 1 & 2 of the Toolkit. Many of them are already available in A Guide to
Student-Centred Learning, The Student-Centred School by Brandes & Ginnis
(published by Stanley Thornes).

Step 1 Successful ‘blank cheque’ learning requires the class to operate


a set of firmly agreed ground rules. There are several ways to establish these.
The quickest is for the teacher to be assertive about one or two minimum standards.
For example
§ each of us will give our complete attention to whoever is speaking
§ we will support each others' self-esteem. This means that we will not put
each other down

Over time, by ...

§ the teacher asserting these minimum standards without punishment


§ introducing increasingly student-centred processes, perhaps starting with a Circle
and Round
§ using deliberate group-building exercises such as Murder Hunt, Learning Listening
and a variety of games
§ taking a little time regularly to debrief the quality of working relationships and
learning processes (Observers Servers might be useful for this)

... the minimum ground rules are likely to become understood and accepted. Further
ground rules might be suggested and agreed by the class.

Two final points:

§ it is important that the teacher expects, from the start, all members of the class to
remind each other of the ground rules
§ after an initial trial period, the ground rules are open to renegotiation.

Step 2 Make explicit and accept, without judgement, the students'


varying levels of interest in the topic or course to be undertaken. You can use
a Round, Paper Round or Value Continuum. Encourage students to express honest
feelings. This step brings the group's starting point (in terms of the range of
motivations) out into the open.

Insights gained at this point will inform decisions made at Step 7. Also, when poor
motivation is acknowledged without judgement by the teacher, awkwardness and the
potential for conflict are usually reduced. In fact, motivation sometimes increases.

Step 3 Give the students an opportunity to understand the course


requirements, the specific learning objectives for the topic, the brief for the
project .... If these are not pre-determined, negotiate them with the students at this
point so that everyone is clear about what learning is expected of them.

If the learning requirements are determined externally, as in an examination course or


a national curriculum subject, then this Step can be carried out by

§ asking small groups to reassemble a jumbled copy of the syllabus/scheme of


work, or
§ by giving students time to study the requirements and then asking for volunteers
to be Hot Seated in role as experts in the matter, or
§ by conducting a straightforward question and answer session (students
questioning the teacher that is!)
§ by using Scrambled Groups with different component parts of the syllabus.

This step can result in the preparation of target-setting records and learning
contracts.
Step 4 Find out, acknowledge and record prior knowledge and
expertise in the field to be studied. Again a Value Continuum is very useful. A 2-
Dimensional Continuum allows this step to be combined with Step 2 above.
Whatever process is used, ask for volunteers to make a class record of the students'
starting points - both the level of prior knowledge and the level of motivation. A wall
graph might be a way of doing this.

There are four reasons for making prior knowledge as explicit as this

§ As time goes on progress can be noted and celebrated publically.


§ It reassures those who have already learned aspects of the material that they
won't have to go over the same ground again.
§ It enables the class to see the range of learning needs and therefore to negotiate
individually precise learning tasks at Step 7.
§ It enables class members to collaborate by indicating who might be a resource to
whom, and who might have similar needs to whom.

Step 5 Now ask the crucial open question: what are all the ways you can
think of that will help us to achieve our learning intentions? At this point creative
and lateral thinking are required so Brainstorming is the ideal method. As teacher,
you too can contribute, adding all sorts of methods of your own. Even if some of the
ideas put forward seem likely to be time-consuming or completely off the wall, don't
censor them at this stage. You don't know what fruit an unusual idea might eventually
yield.

Step 6 Set the brainstorm aside for a moment and discuss with students
the resources that are available and the constraints that apply. Resources
include people, places and events as well as books and high-tech wizardry both in
and out of school. Encourage students to see their own experience, intuition,
imagination and creativity as resources too. They also have each other. Explain the
extent to which you will be a resource for them.

Constraints might include: time; quantity or accessibility of resources; school


regulations about movement around or beyond the site; availability of spaces other
than the classroom for learning activity; externally decreed assessments; homework
policy; safety precautions in practical areas.

The brainstormed list of ideas is now scrutinised in the light of these constraints. Ask
the students whether any ideas now seem unworkable and should be abandoned.

Step 7 With all this information and all these ideas to hand, at long last,
this is the time to make learning plans. There are so many variables at this point -
individual or group work, nature and size of groups, method of learning, pace of
learning, location of learning, means of providing evidence of learning. The refined
brainstorm (Step 6) is a prompt. The class (as a whole group, or in small groups, or
as individuals) considers the approaches that will best serve their learning needs.

This is the point at which differentiation by learning style can be achieved.


This is also the point (with an established student-centred class) at which
assessment informs student choice, ensuring individual rigour and precision. New
learning targets are set, based on assessment of progress towards a more distant
learning goal (the exam for instance). The student-centred method revolves around
honest self-assessment based on feedback from a variety of sources - from the
teacher, from peers, from assessment tasks or tests, from parents and so on.
Teaching students the skill of turning feedback into self-assessment, and then into
targets, is an important component of the approach.

Decisions about learning plans might be made by the whole class together. In this
case, Tally Ho is one way of coming to corporate conclusions. Discussion Carousel
and Scrambled Groups are ways of airing ideas and looking for consensus. Ranking
and Pairs to Fours are ways of deciding between various options.

On the other hand these decisions might be made by small groups or individuals
independently of each other. In this case the teacher will be moving around,
supporting and challenging where appropriate.

Step 8 The individual and group decisions are now written up formally
as Personal Learning Plans. At best these specify targets, learning style(s) to be
used, resources, time-scale, form of assessment or evidence.

Personal Learning Plans express firm intentions. They formalise the commitment to
self and, if peer teaching is part of the plan, to the rest of the class.

Such plans also provide a focus for the tutoring process. They enable the teacher
and student to monitor progress and to reappraise and modify targets as time goes
by.

Step 9 The management of time and resources, once learning activity is


underway, can be shared by everyone. Large wall charts can provide the means
of booking the teacher's time, of booking hardware resources, of planning visits to the
library or other locations and of tracking progress from the original starting points
towards the learning targets.

The teacher's role is that of tutor. This largely involves responding to requests for
support. One input the tutor might have is to suggest a wider variety of learning
strategies and resources than the students already know.

Step 10 From time to time it might feel important to get the whole class
together in a circle for a formative review of progress. This might comprise

§ sharing and acknowledging preliminary learning


§ identifying and solving problems raised by class members or by the teacher, to do
with behaviour, or working arrangements, or difficult concepts in the learning
§ reviewing the ground rules

At the end of the whole cycle an evaluation of the outcomes and the processes of
learning will be required. The results of this evaluation will set the next learning cycle
in motion.