Barbara Priestman Thinking HatsLEADERS in education are looking for deep thinkers to further their cutting edge research into learning for children with autism and complex needs.

Staff and students at accredited ‘Thinking School’ Barbara Priestman Academy in Sunderland have been working with experts from Exeter University on research assessing the impact of teaching students to be independent thinkers.

The school is part of the Ascent Academies’ Trust along with Portland, The New Bridge, Hope Wood at Easington Colliery and Ash Trees in Billingham.

It recently staged a research-meet for teachers and teaching assistants interested in its pioneering work.

Executive head teacher Carolyn Barker said: “Our aim is to be reflective practitioners constantly monitoring, assessing and researching the impact and benefits our strategies have on learning.”

Staff have spent the past four years involved in school-based research and the academy is aiming for advanced thinking schools status. It was one of the first schools to achieve the top level National Federation Education Research Mark.

A programme of continuous professional development sees a stream of teachers studying masters in autism, teaching and learning as well as degrees in subjects as far reaching as fine art and the students, who have special needs, contribute greatly to the whole process.

Ms Barker said: “We are committed to researching and assessing the best possible practices and supporting staff in their development. High expectations and performance are the norms built into the culture and ethos of the school.”

She said students also recognised the power of research and had been involved in the development of thinking tools.

Different coloured hats represent different thought processes, such as factual, intuitive, creative and negative.

“The children are in control of how we use the tools and they become extremely adept at using them,” she said.

“It is lovely to see as it is a way of them managing their thinking and using it in a way that is structured, which really benefits the students, helping them to be more communicative, improves their listening skills and also promotes non-judgemental discussions.”

Children also use dramatic inquiry, whereby they adopt a role to discuss issues from a different point of view.

“This is so insightful and some of the thinking is profound as it can bring out deep responses from the pupils,” Ms Barker said. “There are some powerful learning opportunities which help our students become independent, thoughtful citizens, who are less dependent on the system and more likely to be their own people.

“Leading an SEN provision is a wonderful job and for me the joy is to extend learners and staff and to get the absolute best from people.”

Anyone interested in the work of the trust should contact Judith Stephenson at jstephenson@ascenttrust.org.