Creating an agile-thinking classroom

How can we equip students with the learning autonomy they need, asks Dominic Tomalin, principal at CATS Cambridge

Successful leaders of the future will be known for the flexibility, curiosity, compassion and criticality of their thinking. And in an age of accelerated change, the need for adaptability will also be critical. We believe learning autonomy lies at the heart of inculcating this portfolio of leadership skills, attitudes and behaviours.

Encouraging students to take responsibility for their own life-long learning, by learning how to learn is a key feature of how CATS Cambridge approaches the classroom. We aim to create a learning environment capable of delivering the future shapers, leaders and students who will be agile and confident in navigating the accelerated change and challenges of the future.

An effective school education is, above all, one that prepares its recipients for the future, instilling within them the knowledge, skills, habits and attitudes that enable them to identify and make the most of opportunities, while also equipping them to successfully navigate the challenges, frustrations and obstacles that are an inevitable part of life.

We live in an era of unprecedented change, and that is only likely to increase rather than stabilise. Since the pace of change threatens to outstrip our ability to adapt to our environment, we have no alternative but to continue to be learners throughout our lives.

Our approach to teaching and learning

Our goal is to help our students become highly effective and enthusiastic independent learners. To achieve that, we have to make everyone aware of how humans learn, whether that’s in the classroom, tutorial room or anywhere else.

All our teaching activities are supported by five foundational blocks:

  • Our teachers are experts in the art and science of learning, as well as in their subjects.
  • They are all teachers of English.
  • They must be technology-literate and make the most of the advantages that modern technology can offer.
  • Assessment for Learning involves teachers assessing students, but more importantly students assessing themselves and each other, while teachers are also encouraged to assess their own performance.
  • Our Learning to Learn programme helps make students fully aware of everything that we know about how humans learn, the learning habits that successful learners develop, and the skills and techniques that are used by good learners.


Learning to Learn

Our Learning to Learn programme seeks to ensure that both teachers and students can make the most of the learning community. We have some clear and basic classroom routines, but within these parameters, we allow teachers to decide on the best way to teach their students.

Similarly, we expect students to take responsibility for their own learning and move beyond the expectation of being lectured at and crammed full of facts.

The best learning always takes place with the active involvement of the students, engaging with the material and, fundamentally, with each other. Often a student’s peers are one of their most valuable learning resources, particularly when they have a good understanding of how humans learn.

This leads to a large amount of collaboration, and a portfolio of games and activities designed to get students to engage with each other in pairs, threes, bigger groups or even as a whole class.

Within CATS Cambridge, students are given significantly more freedom to make decisions than they would have in more traditional educational settings. We refer to this freedom to make learning decisions for themselves as learning autonomy, or ‘freedom with a safety net’.

Independent learning should be a continuous, life-long commitment – something inculcated into the way you operate. Learning never ends, you just get better at understanding how to plug the gaps in your knowledge and adapt the way it is used.

Our students already know how to learn, so they generally thrive in [higher education] compared to students from more traditional schools whose days are dominated by detail and rote learning

Challenges of the Learning to Learn model

Learning is best elicited when the learner is actively engaged and feels that they have agency in their own learning. Although teachers are very knowledgeable, they are not all-knowing, and they can and should be questioned. Students are encouraged to check their understanding even when they think they have understood, as well as to ask questions and say when they haven’t.

Teachers often learn far more about what has been learned or misconceived through students’ challenges and questions than they do through formal written tests. This helps them to tweak the learning environment even further to meet the needs of their students.

One of the key challenges is encouraging educational professionals to be open to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning and to buy-into the Learning to Learn approach.  Teachers have to believe in learning techniques if they’re going to pitch them to their students.

We recognise that to teach effectively in a fast-moving world, teachers need to maintain and develop the same attitudes, skills and behaviour as those we aim to elicit in our students, for us andragogy is as important as pedagogy; the most effective teachers role model life-long learning.

We should also acknowledge that education and academic excellence are still measured by students’ performance in examinations, so knowledge and exam technique remain important. That’s not going to change quickly, and we must bear that in mind. Students need to be able to demonstrate their knowledge and learning in conventional and expected ways.

Helping students reach the next step

Ultimately, we’re here to help students get to the next level and to take the next step that’s best for them. That is usually university, where they will have less support in their learning and will need to become more self-sufficient.

We take pride in knowing that our students leave us as some of the best prepared for the move into higher education. Our students already know how to learn, so they generally thrive in this environment compared to students from more traditional schools whose days are dominated by detail and rote learning.

Looking to the future of work, employers always say the same thing: “Please send me someone who can learn!” The great truism of the modern workplace is that, even if you stay in the same job for a number of years, your job role will change every six to 18 months, and you will need to be prepared to evolve and adapt with it.

The importance of life-long learning

So we come back to this concept of life-long learning and the importance of students being agile and independent in their thinking. The best way a student can acquire agility of mind is by learning in an agile classroom within an agile learning community.

Modern students have access to vast amounts of information, but to avoid simply reinforcing confirmation bias, they must learn critical thinking skills which enable them to evaluate the authority of that information and reach their own conclusions and opinions.

CATS Cambridge is driven by what universities and employers tell us they want to see in the talent they’re looking to recruit, and it is this flexibility and criticality of thought which they prize above all else.

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