At the recent Practical Pedagogies Conference here at the International School of Toulouse, Ewan Mcintosh of NoTosh outlined the success schools have had in using ‘project nests’  to gather, inspire and organise ideas (see his blogpost here). I was particularly taken with the idea outlined his blogpost with “getting away from the digital and into the physical”. In a fast-motion video clip, he showed us groups of people scribbling down their ideas on sticky notes, whacking them up on the wall, coming up with fresh ideas based on what they could see emerging before them, and then categorising and linking them meaningfully to work towards an overall synthesis and plan of action. This was collaboration at its most creative and effective.

The example I provide below gives an idea about how the concept might be applied in a simplified way in a single one-hour lesson to help students collaborate, collate, categorise and connect their ideas to produce a sophisticated conclusion about a key question being studied.

Case Study – Why do countries turn into dictatorships?

I tested out the technique today with my Year 12 IB students, who are currently using my website ActiveHistory to investigate the most common causes for the rise of 20th-century dictatorships. Each student has researched the methods and conditions that led to the rise of two dictators in two different continents. In a class of 12 students we therefore had data on 24 dictators from all over the world.

Usually, I get the students to exchange their findings with a partner to identify particularly common causes which apply to all four of their dictators, then use jigsaw-group strategies to ensure that all of the students end up talking to each other before we move towards a whole-class discussion. On this occasion, however, I decided to go about things a bit differently.

Step 1: I gave each student a block of sticky notes. For each of their two dictators, they wrote three sticky notes explaining the methods they used to get into power (we will move on to conditions next time). These were then stuck up all over the wall.

Step 2: The class gathered around the board, and were asked to read the ideas that had been shared. I asked them to do this individually and in silence for a few minutes, and to reflect as they did so about which factors were coming up most frequently or which were most closely related.


Step 3: Students were asked to start organising the sticky notes into definable categories. I let them go about this in an open-ended way at first but realised that certain students were ‘hanging back’ a little whilst others were taking over a little too forcefully, and so I paused the process to ensure that each of these people in turn were given a chance to get involved too.

Step 4: Once everyone seemed to be happy with the arrangement, and we had disposed of any ‘rogue’ factors that clearly only applied to particular dictators, we talked through each category in turn. What do all these factors have in common? What, therefore, should be our ‘title’ for each category? As we did this, different students wrote these titles down on a differently coloured sticky note and added it over each category.


Step 5: We then discussed how these categories overlapped or were connected. ‘Psychopathic Tendencies’ was felt to be connected to a ‘Willingness to use Violence’, whilst ‘Pragmatic Opportunism’ was felt to connect to ‘Nationalistic Ideology’ (this in particular led to a heated exchange with my Russian student, who argued that Stalin could not remain in such a category as communism was incompatible with nationalism – which in turn led to an impromptu discussion about Stalin’s use of the slogans ‘Socialism in One Country’ and the ‘Great Patriotic War’ to pragmatically adjust communist ideology to the conditions of the USSR). These links were explained with green arrows.

Step 6: We talked through the clearest ‘path’ through our completed diagram and discussed how we had effectively produced a thesis that we could turn into an examination-style essay. The lesson being over, I then quickly removed each batch of sticky-notes from the board and placed them in a drawer ready for further review next lesson.


Next steps

It so happened that half of my students were absent during this lesson due to internal examinations. I will start next lesson by providing them with the original post-it notes and asking them to organise these on the board whilst the rest of the class sit and observe in a ‘fishbowl’ format. It will be interesting to see if they end up recreating the same categories, titles and links or whether they produce something different.

I will then take a high-resolution photograph of each category of sticky notes (or arrange each group onto A3 paper and photocopy them) so that each student has the raw material for their individual write-up phase.

We will then repeat the process for the ‘conditions’ in each country that enabled these dictators to use these ‘methods’ before producing a full essay and considering the historiography that surrounds the emergence of dictators.


Ewan Mcintosh, Learning Spaces #1 – Build a project nest \ The Lab (Available at:, last accessed 4th November 2015)