Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Learning detectives and spies

There are lots of articles about something called 'Learning Spies' or 'Learning Detectives' around the Internet or in books.  If you haven't heard of them before, it involves setting learners off on a project, task or activity but having a number of individuals who observe the learning from the side.  They don't actively get involved in the task but go around the classroom, listening and watching how people work.  Armed with a clipboard or even a Flip Camera, they try and collect evidence of good learning which they can reinforce in a debrief.  They also go the other way and capture moments of bad learning which can be reflected on later.

This is a very powerful tool when trying to embed L2L into a subject.  If you have introduced a new way of learning to your class, the Learning Detectives can capture as much of this as they can.  At key points in the lesson, you can stop the class, get the detectives to share any learning experiences they've seen, compare this to the L2L principles and success criteria you created and create a new plan of action to move forward.

In Year 9 L2L lessons we used this during a teamwork and enquiry lesson.  As a class we looked at each of these skills and created success criteria.  When the students went off to work, I had two detectives armed with a clipboard and camera to capture moments.  As the lesson went on they provided me with snippets of what they had seen.  If something really good or bad was seen, we stopped, watched the video or listened to the comments, intervened where necessary and then continued.  At the end of the lesson we had thorough debriefs and planned how to progress.

A simple prompt sheet we used to begin with in Year 9 L2L
In PE, I usually use this with non-participants.  During my Year 9 Badminton lesson this year we focused on effective use of feedback as a form of assessment.  Again, a success criteria was formed based on a class discussion.  The class went off on an activity which involved AfL and peer assessment.  My learning detectives were given whiteboard markers and listened intently to the quality of feedback they were hearing.  On the main whiteboard they wrote up any comments or conversations they had heard.  When we reflected, the detectives fed back, we compared to the success criteria, discussed a plan of action and looked at how we could develop feedback next lesson. 

So is it worthwhile doing?  As you can guess, this method does have its ups and downs.  Some detectives, especially in classroom lessons, feel that they aren't involved in the 'content' learning of the lesson.  Although they are listening to information probably harder than before, they aren't fully immersed in the learning.  There are also those individuals who use this role as a distraction and it is up to the teacher to utilise the detective as much as possible and 'big up' the role.  Applying a sense of importance normally ensures the detective completes their role very effectively.

On the positive side, it gives very accurate and specific examples of good/bad learning.  Because it comes from a student, the rest of the class are normally very receptive.  Because you are constantly referring to an L2L skill, strategy or quality, that itself gets reinforced.  It helps promote the principles of L2L you are looking at.  The use of photos, video clips or direct quotes also makes the reflection process very real and helps to reinforce the good learner habits you want.  It works exceptionally well for me with non-participants in PE.  As long as there is a focus to identify, they can capture some learning which you naturally might miss.

Overall verdict:  As a tool to help identify and reinforce good learner habits/good learning in lessons, this is an excellent tool.  Make sure you create a success criteria so the detectives know what to look for and can check what they see/hear against it.  Make sure you choose responsible individuals first so you can demonstrate an effective Learning Detective.  Arm them with a camera or clipboard to ensure they capture as much as they can.  Add importance to the role.  Allow time in the lesson, both during and at the end, to reflect on what they have spotted.  As with all things, use it occassionally.


  1. When we implement a"learning detective" model, we utilise a Solution Focused mindset in that we advise students (as young as 7) that we are going to observe their successful learning strategies and feed back to them at the end of the lesson. Because the students "know" that we are watching for successful learning, they in turn, learn successfully. It really doesn't matter if their strategies are just made up on the spot because they know we are watching because once we highlight them and praise them we question them on what they learnt from using them, this further cements their strategies and possibilities repeat actions occur.
    Eileen Murphy

    1. Wow! This is an excellent way to use Learning Detectives and highlight/reinforce good learner habits. Might try the Solution Focused Mindset model in the future. Thanks.

  2. Amazing work - might be nicking a few ideas!

    1. Feel free to. As with most things, adapt them to suit your needs. If you have any questions or want any help, ask via twitter on @davidfawcett27