Let Teachers SHINE winner 2023: Penelope Melville – Mind Wandering Cards

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An innovative way of teaching designed to improve students’ concentration during lessons has been awarded £15,000.

The concept, which has been created by Penelope Melville, an English teacher at Christopher Whitehead Language College and Sixth Form in Worcester, uses colour-coded cards to boost students’ listening, understanding, and debating skills.

Penelope has been using a prototype of the system in her classes for six years, and she says the indications are that it holds significant potential to aid disadvantaged students’ learning.

The grant from Let Teachers SHINE, a competition to find innovative new teaching ideas, will allow Penelope to assess the impact of the intervention, with the aim of scaling it, so that many more children and young people benefit.

Penelope is passionate about “Mitigating Mind-Wandering”, which she created and developed while undertaking a Master’s degree at Oxford University.

While studying for her Master’s, she learned a lot about the importance of classroom talk and how small group discussion is among the best methods for learning, as it introduces different opinions or ideas about a topic, which students need to discuss and debate to find a solution.

“But I kept thinking that nobody is focusing on how well the kids are actually listening when they do this. I know for myself, I don’t necessarily take in everything all at once,” she said.

“It is important to recognise that everyone mind-wanders – research indicates that adults spend 25-50% of their waking hours mind-wandering – and everyone is subject to misunderstanding.

“So I designed a methodology whereby you check listening and understanding first and, in particular, mitigate the impact of mind wandering so that the kids can be caught up and actually engage more effectively in a debate of the ideas. And I also created cards to prompt that debate.”

Her method provides a structured format for discussing an issue, beginning with listening, and understanding. The aim is to make talk more exploratory, prompting students to debate all aspects of an issue and arrive at well-constructed conclusions.

Students work collaboratively in small groups, and after the first speaker explains their interpretation of a quotation, listeners use colour-coded cards to indicate whether they understand, partially understand, misunderstand, or have mind-wandered.

The listener(s) who think they understand then need to reword the original speaker’s idea until everyone has understood. Once this happens, they each choose a debate card (agree, disagree, or unsure) and must justify their response.

This encourages students to explore all aspects of an argument, enhance engagement in debate, and foster critical thinking.

It also slows the pace of the discussion, giving students more time to think and process information, helping them to better understand what is being discussed and to come up with thoughtful and considered responses. Furthermore, it discourages students from quietly opting out of the discussion.

Penelope says that academics have suggested that mind-wandering may be a key factor in the academic achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Going forward, Penelope hopes to expand her project into other schools.

“I’d love to expand it,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to get it out there so that other people can use it because it has such a positive response from the students.

“The support from SHINE gives me that opportunity. It means I can expand it, as opposed to having it just sit in a research paper.”

Penelope found out she had won the funding during form time in class.

“I glanced at my computer, and I saw the e-mail there and I clicked on it and just I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The students could tell from my face that something was up. They were asking me lots of questions and I wouldn’t tell them. One of them said, have you won the lottery?

“In the context of the project, it was hilarious because my mind wandered all over the place, and I couldn’t think straight. I really wanted to scream, but of course, I couldn’t do that in the classroom!”

SHINE Interim CEO, Helen Rafferty, said, “Let Teachers SHINE is all about spotting the hidden innovations which have the potential to unlock barriers for disadvantaged students. Penelope has hit upon an issue which many teachers see in their day-to-day practice. We hope through this project to understand better the impact of this approach and explore the potential for other schools to take it on in future.”