MTa PASS: A study by Lancaster University

In 2005 Lancaster University conducted research into MTa PASS and reported back on this experiential tool can help young people learn. Developing ‘learning to learn’ skills through experiential challenges
[First Published in Gifted Education International, volume 20, #1, 2005.]
Davies, Hymer and Lawson

1. Introduction

A group of Year 6 pupils (aged 10-11 years) at Newbarns Primary School, Barrow-in-Furness (4 boys and 2 girls, all identified as highly able by their classteacher) took part in a project using MTa PASS (2002) materials in order to help them develop their learning skills. The activities they undertook as part of this project were known to them as ‘challenges,’ and the main focus of the evaluation was to examine the extent to which pupils were applying the skills they had learned from these ‘challenges’ to their wider learning. MTa PASS materials are designed to help participants find out about their skills and abilities, develop constructive attitudes to learning, and improve their intra- and inter-personal skills. The package contains 17 different activities (many of which bear repetition), based around a set of constructional equipment. The activities are graded for degree of difficulty, but no specific sequence has to be followed. Collaborative small group work is central to all the activities, as is a significant plenary element, involving high levels of review and reflection.

Following a meeting with the pupils’ classteacher, who also acted as the school’s Gifted & Talented Coordinator, it was apparent to the lead evaluator that the school were interested in finding the answers to five key questions:

1. To what extent had pupils understood the concepts/techniques being used?
2. How were pupils putting these concepts/techniques into practice?
3. Were pupils finding these concepts/techniques useful?
4. What opportunities were there for pupils to use these concepts/techniques in their lessons?
5. Were pupils beginning to recognise their own gifts and talents and use these in their lessons?

Therefore, the main purpose of the evaluation was to examine the impact the challenges were having on the pupils’ broader learning and development. There was, however, a second purpose to the evaluation – which was to provide pupils with an opportunity to evaluate the project themselves. In this way they would have the extra benefit of developing a set of evaluation skills, for possible application at later stages in their school careers. In order to combine both purposes it was agreed that the lead evaluator (from Lancaster University) would support the pupils during their evaluation. Consequently, whereas the evaluation was designed in a broad sense to address the five questions outlined above, how it was actually carried out was very much determined by the pupils themselves.

Since the 1970s, Bruce Shore and his colleagues have been conducting a number of studies of how gifted students think differently from other learners. Their focus has been primarily on meta-cognitive processes – i.e. the monitoring, control and evaluation of thinking strategies, and the flexibility with which these strategies are applied.

In summary, Shore (2000) has found that expert learners –
+ consistently use meta-cognitive processes such as self-monitoring, self-evaluating and self-correcting;
+ develop automaticity with regard to simpler tasks – thereby freeing up working memory for complex or novel tasks and for self-regulation;
+ take longer pauses during the early stages of problem-solving (e.g. data-gathering);
+ are goal-driven, and their problem-solving behaviour is well-connected with webbed prior learning;
+ evaluate steps in terms of their expected effect on their progress towards the goal.

A third and subsidiary intention of the project was to explore the extent to which this small group of identified gifted and talented learners demonstrated (or could learn to demonstrate) the characteristics of expert learners identified by Shore.

2. Method
[Hereafter, the term ‘we’ is taken to mean the lead evaluator, Paul Davies, and the pupils involved in the project.]
The evaluation was conducted in a series of steps. The exact number of steps was not planned at the outset as we were not sure what course the evaluation would take now that it was being shaped by the pupils’ ideas. In the end it consisted of five separate steps:
Step 1 Meeting the Pupils
This meeting took place some weeks into the pupils’ exposure to the MTa PASS challenges. They had already therefore developed some familiarity with the requirements and processes contained in the materials. During this meeting we talked through issues, and made sure we had a shared understanding of the key terms and concepts. A list of preliminary evaluation questions (Appendix 1) was drawn up.
Step 2 Designing the Study
We decided that preliminary evaluation question 7. – “Do the challenges help you with your school work?” was the one in which we were most interested. This formed the main focus of our study. We also decided to adopt an evaluation method made up of four parts:
+ outlining the issues
+ designing a questionnaire
+ completing this questionnaire
+ meeting to analyse questionnaire responses and identify key themes.
It was at this point that the pupils suggested that the challenges had already been useful in helping them develop seven main skills which they listed in rank order (Appendix 2). Consequently, we decided that the next task was to find out more about these seven skills, and in particular how they might help the pupils with their school work. To do this we designed a questionnaire (Appendix 3) which each of the pupils completed, supported by their teacher. As can be seen from the questionnaire, we were very interested in finding out exactly which of the skills were proving to be useful. And in order to make sure that we had evidence to back up this up, pupils were asked to provide actual examples of the skills in used in each subject.
Step 3 Data Analysis Meeting
The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the information pupils had written on their questionnaire and make a note of the main patterns and themes that emerged from their responses. The questionnaires together with the discussion notes were taken away to Lancaster University and a summary of these data was produced (Appendix 4).
Step 4 Identifying Patterns and Themes
The summary of the interview data was given to the pupils so they could identify the patterns and themes within the data for themselves. They recorded these with their teacher and this was brought to a final de-brief meeting.
Step 5 Drawing Conclusions Meeting
At this meeting we looked at all the data and drew out what were thought were the most interesting points. These were taken away by Lancaster University to be written up in the form of a report.

3. Information about the Questionnaire (Appendix 3)
In order to test out whether the challenges were helping the pupils with their learning, and also to find out the extent to which their newly acquired learning skills were being used across the curriculum as a whole, the pupils designed a questionnaire which they filled in after completing their challenges. The questionnaire responses, together with comments made by pupils at the data analysis meeting, showed that the skills they had gained from the challenges, could be placed into 11 categories – as can be seen from the summary of questionnaire responses presented in Appendix 4 (not listed in any particular order).
These 11 categories represent what the pupils thought were the main learning skills they had used, and they thought the challenges had, to varying extents, helped them to develop (or further develop) their capacity for using such skills. In essence, they thought they had become ‘better’ learners as a direct result of doing the challenges. Furthermore, they also believed they had become ‘better’ learners not just in a few subjects but across the curriculum as a whole. This can be seen from the fact that nine different subjects were used to provide examples of how they were using these learning skills.

4. Interesting Issues Emerging from the Data Analysis Meeting
An interesting theme that emerged from the data analysis meeting was that pupils were beginning to ask epistemological questions – i.e. they questioned what might be termed the nature of ‘knowledge’ and how such ‘knowledge’ is obtained. Whereas previously there had been a quite understandable tendency for them to think of knowledge as consisting of ‘right’ rather than ‘wrong’ answers to a question, they were now beginning to appreciate that knowledge was not as straightforward as this. For example, they were able to explain that what was counted as the right answer might depend on who won the argument during a discussion, and that the person who won may have done so simply because he/she was more confident or (louder!) than the other members of the group.
Another interesting idea that was beginning to enter into their thinking was that the best way to learn was not always by answering a question by following a set of fixed rules. They were starting to recognise that sometimes it was important to take risks by tackling a question or a challenge in a different way. However, they explained that in order to do this they needed to be confident enough to deal with getting the answer wrong, and also motivated enough to review what had occurred in order to learn from their mistakes. This is an important point which is returned to later.
The chief purpose of the data analysis meeting was to enable the pupils to draw some general conclusions about the project as a whole, and especially the way in which the skills they had developed actually helped them to become better learners. One of the main conclusions they reached was that these 11 learning skills did not operate independently of each other, but were inter-linked in a variety of ways. For example, a learner can become more accurate by being more independent – in the sense that when you make your own decision to read over and check your work (as against being told to by the teacher) so as to eliminate many mistakes before your work is shared with the teacher and/or other pupils.
Pupils suggested that there were some fascinating ways in which the various learning skills were linked. For example, several thought that planning was linked to creativity in the sense that you can deliberately insert some original thought into a planned space in a piece of work. This is interesting because planning skills are sometimes assumed to be rather mechanistic and formulaic, whilst creativity is sometimes associated with spontaneity or intuition. Several pupils, however, thought that this was not the case and that it was possible to design creativity into a piece of work. For example, good planning gives you confidence that you can complete a piece of work and, in turn, this confidence encourages you to take the risk of doing something new and original.
In observations such as these (e.g. the power of self-correction, connecting problem-solving behaviour with webbed prior learning, taking time over initial planning), the pupils seemed to be confirming many of the characteristics identified by Shore as being typical of expert learners.
Another very interesting theme which emerged from the data analysis meeting was that pupils thought there was a hierarchy within this set of 11 learning skills. Being an independent worker was near to the top of this hierarchy but at the very top was confidence. Almost all of the pupils felt that if you were a confident learner this would help you:
+ work more independently
+ contribute to group work
+ make judgements
+ take risks
+ be more creative
+ undertake reviews and evaluation of your work, etc.

5. Conclusions
The data analysis meeting marked the end point of this evaluation, although it is obvious that many of the issues that have emerged need further thought and refinement and could benefit from more time being spent on them.
As mentioned at the start of this report, the evaluation had two main aims. The first was to examine the impact that the challenges were having on pupils’ learning, and the second was to enable the pupils to have the experience of designing their own evaluation. It is apparent from the information presented above that the challenges were benefiting the pupils in numerous ways as will shortly be discussed below. And it also appears to be the case that the pupils obtained something extra from the project by being enable to design and conduct their own evaluation of it.
Finally, to return to the five key questions posed at the start of the report, it is now possible to offer some tentative answers to them:
1. To what extent had pupils understood the concepts/techniques being used?
The pupils appeared to have a very good understanding of the concepts and techniques associated with the ‘challenges’. They were aware of the purpose of the project as a whole and how they would benefit from participating in it.
2. How were pupils putting these concepts/techniques into practice?
Although no classroom observation was carried out as part of this evaluation, the data produced by the questionnaire, together with the discussion it generated, shows that the pupils were putting the concepts and techniques into practice in a number of subjects. What was not fully explored, however, was the exact mechanism by which pupils used these skills. For example, are they able to use such skills within a ‘standard’ lesson or does the teacher have to design the lesson in a particular way to enable pupils to employ the skills?
3. Are pupils finding these concepts/techniques useful?
The answer is yes. There was much enthusiasm shown by the pupils in the meetings when the challenges, the skills and the application of the skills in lessons was discussed.
4. What opportunities were there for pupils to use these concepts/techniques in their lessons?
There appears to be scope for pupils to use these concepts/techniques in a variety of different lessons – as can be seen from the data presented in Appendix 4. Some familiar subjects (e.g. history) were not mentioned by the pupils, but this was due to the fact that not many of lessons of this subject had been time-tabled during the period of this evaluation. As mentioned above, it is not possible to conclude whether the opportunities to use the concepts/techniques are created by the pupils or have to be designed into the lesson plan by the teacher. This is a topic that could be examined further.
5. Are pupils beginning to recognise their own gifts and talents and use these in their lessons?
Comments made by the pupils during the discussions showed how they were very aware of how the 11 learning skills could help them in their lessons. They were already beginning to calculate the extent to which they possessed and actually used these skills in their lessons, for example, some felt they could improve their group work skills, whilst others believed they needed to plan more. Basically, they were all aware that they used some of these skills more frequently and effectively than others. They gave the impression that whilst they liked to ‘play to their strengths’ and work in the way which they felt most comfortable, they also intended to try to use other techniques to be more rounded learners.

Appendix 1
Finding Out About Challenges:
Questions Pupils Thought Needed to be Asked

1. Do you do both physical and mental challenges?

2 What is the challenge about?

3. Do you know what to do in the challenge?

4. Do you know why you are doing the challenge?

5. Do you enjoy doing challenges?

6. Are the challenges easy or hard to do?

7. Do the challenges help you with your school work?

Appendix 2
Pupils’ Initial Attempt to List and Rank the Skills Used in the Challenges:

What has the challenge helped me to do?
In order of importance:
1= Work more independently
1= Work more confidently
3. Work quicker and more accurately
4. Work together
5. Plan how to do my work
6. Work in a small group

Appendix 3
Questionaire Template [See PDF Version]

Appendix 4

Questionnaire Responses [From children who had taken part in the study]

Skills Gained Examples
Confidence English: “It helps me to express my ideas”
PE: “It helps the way I work towards my balance and body movements. E.g. in PE on the ropes or climbing along benches”
Independence Science: “I work more independently e.g. the Block work in whole group”
Risk taking / Experimenting Maths: “It has helped me work more confidently and expressing my ideas even if they are wrong”
ICT: “When I’m doing my PowerPoint it has helped me experiment with more of my things”
Group Work Skills English: “It has helped me work in small groups and in big groups”
PHSE: “I have learned not to argue because it distracts you off what you are doing”
General: “Helps me work in small groups and get my points across – helps to combine ideas”

Making judgements
Music: “I think the challenge helped me to sort out and switch instruments”
General “Can decide on right size of group for different jobs”
. Understanding progression General: “When work gets harder you do the easier stuff first”
Planning Science: “It helped me to plan and when to do our next task. Especially when we do the parachute”
Music: “Because it helped me organise and plan what instruments to use”
ICT: “I find it easier to plan my work such as the PowerPoint”
P.E.: “Because they help me plan the order of our relay team in swimming”
Evaluation Music: “Its help me think over what I’m writing when I’m writing a song. E.g. Christmas Song
Constructive discussion General: “It’s better not to argue. It slows you down”
Creativity Technology: “Because it helps me to work more independently on Tudor Houses and to work creatively”
Art “Because it helps me to work more creatively in my work and the Challenge that helped me most was the Box on Wheels”
Music “It helps me think creatively when we were composing”
Speed and accuracy English
“They helped me work quicker and more accurately”
ICT
“How to do my work quickly and accurately, to produce good work in a short amount of time”
Technology
“Definitely! Because it helps me finish much more accurately and quicker and getting them out of the way”

References:
Shore, B. (2000) Metacognition and Flexibility: Qualitative Differences in How
Gifted Children Think. In: Talents Unfolding – cognition and
Development by Reva C. Friedman & Bruce M. Shore (editors).
Washington: American Psychological Association.
MTa PASS (2002) Manual for MTa PASS materials. http://www.mtalearning.com
Co-authors:
Paul Davies, Researcher, Lancaster University Department of Education
Barry Hymer, Senior Educational Psychologist, Barrow Education Action Zone
Heather Lawson, Gifted & Talented Coordinator, Newbarns Primary School, Barrow-in-Furness