Over the years I have met students who dislike all sorts of different lesson activities: those who hate writing, or don’t want to appear in photo stories, those who don’t wish to read aloud or act in role plays, those who hate homework or sitting down for 60 full minutes.  Most of us have things that we enjoy, others that  we will try under certain circumstances and other things that push us so far beyond our comfort zone we will resist them at all costs, so it is easy to sympathise with these feelings.

The dilemma we face as teachers is how far to ‘push’ students to develop skills that may, at first, fall outside their comfort zone.  Then, if we decide it is important, how do we scaffold support so that they can achieve the goal and expand their comfort zone along the way.  Talking in class seems to hold a particular place in people’s fears.  However this does not mean that it is good for students to ‘opt out’.

Why is Contributing in the Classroom Important?

Some of the activities  above are not vital for learning.  If a student doesn’t want to appear in front of camera (certainly in my subject) it is not fundamental to the learning and I have other strategies to allow them to access the learning in a different way.  It doesn’t really matter; the aim to is tell the story of an historic event in a narrative framework.  If all group members contribute to the planning and creation of an end product that does this, all will learn and develop as historians.

For other activities, this is not the case.  Writing is vital for success in history.  Students need to take notes, understand how to structure written pieces, present their answers in a written format and much more.  Of course some students may have extreme needs that need alternative provision in either the short-term (the broken arm) or the long-term (transcriber in the exam) but this is rare.

Verbal contributions fall into the same bracket.   The Bullock Report  suggested that language competence grows ‘in the course of using it’ (DES: 1975), and through the interaction of writing, talk, reading and experience.  Whether in small groups or to the whole class, research shows that discussion is a ‘powerful arena for learning’ (Fountain: 1994).  Outside of the specific subject arena students’  ability to communicate verbally to different audiences in varying forums will be a vital tool to most, if not all, of our students.  If we encourage anxiety, promote withdrawal from discussion and allow students to retreat there is a risk.  There is a risk that we will disempower them in life, perpetuating their anxieties that their contributions are less than others, their views less valuable, their voice not worth hearing.

Of course, some people are quieter than others.  Some want more time to think or feel less need to be immediately heard.  But this does not mean that they cannot and do not make incredibly valuable contributions at the time of their choosing.  However, if anyone has ever sat in a meeting or lecture unsure about raising their hand, wanting to ask a question but being too nervous to put themselves forward, worrying about what others will think then they will understand what our students are feeling.  They will understand why they are anxious and wish to retreat from the situation.  They will also surely want to help them break out of that pattern if at all possible.  Wilkinson (1965) argued that  “oracy is not a subject but a condition of learning … it is not a “frill” but a state of being in which the whole school must operate”.  I fully agree.

How Do We Help Them to Achieve This?

Any ‘talk’ is not equally valuable, although if trying to overcome anxiety and encourage participation our goal may need to take that into account.  However the most useful for our lessons is normally what Mercer (2000) called “exploratory talk” where pupils share their ideas, give reasons for these, listen to each other and explore the domain knowledge together.  It is this kind of discourse on which social constructionist theories of learning are predicated and it is, naturally enough, the hardest to achieve.  Some strategies that I have found helpful include:

  • Consider the format of talking tasks – Sutherland (2006) found that students, especially in secondary school, felt a lot more comfortable with small group discussion tasks than whole class. They can feel excluded from and frustrated with the latter.  Throwing students into whole class discussion or debates is often unhelpful, allowing some to hide and some who would participate to be excluded.  I find it better to scaffold towards this with small group discussion which can, sometimes, lead to whole class discussion or, at others, be sufficient in and of itself.
  • Managing groups – for students it matters a lot with whom they are being asked to talk. (As it does for adults.)  In group tasks, the ‘behaviour’ seating plan where students are sat with peers they are uncomfortable with to promote good behaviour is unlikely to work well.  Their discomfort will translate into their discussions.  In most cases I would advocate letting them work with those with whom they are most comfortable and describe my thinking behind that in this blog:  https://jmsreflect.blog/2017/10/29/reflecting-on-better-to-be-lazy-than-incapable-the-motivation-of-boys/
  • Plan discussion tasks carefully – sometimes it is tempting to think that having presenting students with ideas, texts or resources they will then be able to ‘discuss’ effectively. However, this is rarely the case unless students are highly skilled.  As with any task, a clear model helps.  The purpose of the activity needs to be clear and prompts and extensions points planned into the activity.
  • Managing “I don’t know” – ‘I don’t knows’ can be valuable feedback, suggesting that my lesson is going too fast or that I have not given sufficient thinking time. However, it can also be a strategy to avoid contributing.  From early on I try to break away from this as a habit.  I encourage students to problem-solve if they don’t know the answer, as for a written activity.  Seek help from a peer and feed the answer back to me.  Often  ‘chairing’ a sub-discussion and filtering the contributions back can be as valuable a way of contributing as putting forward an answer of their own.
  • Scaffolding to active participation – for some verbal contributions and discussions are beyond their skills at first. Like any other vital skill, I may need to differentiate for individuals or for a whole class to help them learn the strategies that become verbal contributions.  Silent debates, mini-whiteboards or socrative.com (long advocated by @JMS_Computing) all help students to respond to ideas, thinking of their own answers and share them with reduced anxiety.  And, in the case of Socrative, anonymously.  This allows me to model the classroom culture, my enthusiasm at their participation, my tools for developing or giving feedback on their answers in a way that celebrates their strengths and responding to others’ ideas and questions.  Obviously these tools do not yet mean that the students are making verbal contributions, but I have found them to act as invaluable stepping stones towards that goal.

Questions I have reflected on regarding students’ verbal contributions:

  1. How important is it that students contribute verbally in the classroom? How and why would the learning be different if they did not?
  2. What in this class / activity / topic is making it hard for students to contribute effectively? How can I help them to overcome that?  What obstacles can I remove to build their confidence?

 

Most of the quotes and references in this blog come from Valerie Coultas whose article below I found particularly helpful and thought-provoking:

Coultas, Valerie. (2015). Revisiting Debates on Oracy: Classroom Talk–Moving towards a Democratic Pedagogy? Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education,22(1), 72-86.

Hands-up questioning can make the classroom feel like an active, vibrant place where students keenly engage with the learning.  I’ve generally found this to be an illusion.

There can be few things worse, in the course of a normal lesson, than asking a question or opening a discussion only to be met with silence.  Anxiety can instantly take over and there is a strong temptation to turn to the student who always has something useful to say to “rescue” the moment and move the lesson forwards.

For a lot of reasons, it can therefore be very reassuring when trying to lead a discussion or a question-and-answer session to see students actively engaging waving their hands and keen to contribute.  And it can seem just plain unfair not to turn to the keen engaged student and involve them in the lesson at that point.

Outside of the moment, we know that the hands-up method doesn’t necessarily reflect the quantity of knowledge in the classroom, or engagement with the lesson.  30-50% of highly engaged students can hide a lot of gaps in my delivery and the students’ understanding, but it is tempting nonetheless.

Hands-up questioning can also feel more comfortable.  The flow of the lesson generally feels quicker as a fast pace of interaction between teacher and student can be maintained.  And it is tempting to think that those who do not have their hands up will learn from exposure to the answers and dialogue around them (and this may well be true in a number of cases).

Galton’s (2002) research in this area was significant in shifting my mental attitude.  He interviewed pupils about questioning in the classroom.  The reasons they gave for being reluctant to contribute are probably ones with which we are all familiar such as fear of being accused of being “boffins” (it was 2002).  Interestingly they also expressed concern about interacting with the teacher and meeting teachers’ expectations.  One described the experience of answering questions as being like “walking a tightrope” in terms of reaching for a particular goal that the teacher has in mind but which only they know.  Both of the above speak to the importance of creating a positive classroom culture where contributions are valued by all in the room, including the teacher.

Beyond this, though, what struck me from the research was the range of strategies students have for not contributing to lessons, especially with new teachers.  Hands-up questioning gives them the power to shape the nature and flow of discussion within the classroom.  Common strategies include:

  • Putting their hands up quickly knowing that it reduces the chance they will be called upon.
  • Using body language and facial expressions to give the impression that they are thinking really hard and just need a little more time.
  • Jumping in early on when they expect things to be “easy” making them “safe” from more challenging questions later.
  • Dropping their hands if they think the teacher is about to turn to them.
  • Using some version of “someone else has said my idea” as a substitute for contributing.

This is not to deny that there are very legitimate concerns with managing hands-down questioning.  Switching to hands-down questioning can feel nerve-wracking.  What if it makes students anxious?  Or leads to a constant loop of silent stares and “I don’t knows”? (Actually this would be tells me something important, but it still doesn’t feel comfortable.)  It is right to ‘force’ participation?

As ever, planning can help make this successful.  I find it helpful to think carefully about how I would call on people and how to distribute my questioning around the class.  With practise, certain routines can become ‘habit’ and so need less careful planning, but it is still something I think about a lot when planning a questioning sequence.  I find it particular important to think about how to manage anxiety, something which I do not always get right, especially with new classes.  Planning space for student discussion and thinking time can be important here.

The following are strategies I have found helpful at different times:

  • Random selection of students – when I started teaching this involved lollypop sticks. Now the computer can generate ‘random picks’ of students but the principle is the same.  An equal chance of being selected can encourage all students to pay full attention and be prepared to participate.  Pitfalls such as student anxiety can be reduced with the right atmosphere and thinking/discussion time before participation.  If a student is truly stuck inviting them to select someone to help them answer the question can throw them a ‘lifeline’ whilst still encouraging active participation.  I find this very helpful for new classes, occasional quizzes and when I anticipate students having a lot to say but I have time only for a few ideas or contributions.
  • Targeted selection of students – questioning can be differentiated as effectively as any other part of the lesson. By thinking about which students should be answering my questions, and what level of ‘thinking’ they involve, I can encourage maximum participation.  As with any differentiation, knowing the students is vital; I want to move them out of their comfort zone but not place them into a space of such anxiety that learning becomes impossible.  This is not always easy, especially with new classes.  With classes I know well, it is more about ensuring that I don’t ‘label’ students or limit their exposure to higher-level thinking and discussion but underestimating their contribution.  I have discussed this issue in my blog on ‘Equitable Questioning’ here:  https://jmsreflect.blog/2018/02/25/reflecting-on-equitable-questioning/
  • Allowing space for additional contributions – the strategies above leave me in control of questioning but sometimes students’ ideas and flashes of insight exceed expectations. In an extended or creative discussion I will often follow the initial hands-down questioning with an invitation for students to contribute if they have any new ideas or a different way of thinking about the issue than we have raised so far.
  • Let students know what to expect – building routines can be difficult, especially as hands-up participation may be the best tool at times. Even if this is not the case in my lessons, students may be used to it elsewhere.  I find it is helpful to scaffold towards full hands-down questioning by reminding them at the start of the task how I’ll be taking input and also giving them strategies to prepare.  I remind them that they have time to discuss so they can contribute with ideas from their group, or ask for help during the discussion time if really stuck.  When we move onto questioning and hand shoot up, I like to make this a positive and say something along the lines of “Thank you for offering, but I don’t need your help choosing people on this one, because I think everyone could offer something.”
  • Full display – sometimes questioning is an easy routine to slip into, bridging different parts of the lesson. However I find it important to remember that there are other tools, especially if I really want to see what all my students understand.  Answers on whiteboards, or stand-up/sit-down whole-class responses give me a much fuller picture of my students’ understanding of some issues.  Sometimes I have to fight the tendency to ‘drop into’ teacher-led questioning out of habit and remind myself that, even with hands-down questioning, I can still only interact with a very small number of students at any time using this method.

Reflecting on questioning…

  • Do my routines allow students to ‘hide’ in my classroom, perhaps encouraging me to think they have understood material or concepts that they have yet to master?
  • Do my students understand how they will be feeding back on a particular activity so that they can prepare for this if they need to?
  • Is a question-answer sequence the best tool for understanding what my students have learned in this activity?

Interested in further reading?  I recommend:

Coultas, V. (2012). Classroom talk: Are we listening to teachers’ voices? English in Education, 46(2), 175-189.

 

By doing some simple tracking of how my questioning was distributed in class, I have noticed that  my pupil premium students are at times getting more closed and less challenging questions to answer.  They are involved in the lessons; but not necessarily getting a fair deal.

The importance of good questioning in the classroom is well established and most teachers have clear routines for planning and delivering effective questioning sessions.  Whilst questioning plays a key role in checking what the students have taken from the last activity or presentation it also givesthem a chance to connect ideas and develop their thinking.  In my most recent post I explored how I have been using increased ‘wait time’ after initial student responses to draw more out of them and the positive impact this was having  https://jmsreflect.blog/2018/01/15/reflecting-on-powerful-pauses/

As a teacher, questioning is an area in which I’ve always felt confident.  This is not an entirely unfounded belief, as my questioning has frequently been tagged as an area of strength in lesson observations.  I balance closed ‘checking’ questions with  open questions that  do encourage students to think.  I have always been very conscious of circulating the classroom and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to participate and try to give thinking and discussion time for those who need it.   All students participate in my lessons, regardless of prior attainment, gender or other factors.

However, in reading Harris and Williams’ (2012) research into classroom interactions I was recently inspired to take a closer look at the patterns of my questioning and recognise that my questioning may not always have been equitable and that I need to think more carefully about how it is distributed within my classroom.  Harris and Williams found that in affluent schools questions tended to be more open, with longer wait times for students to think than in poorer schools.  Here the questions tend to be more closed, and of a lower order of thinking.  Essentially, children from more affluent background were getting higher quality interactions within the classroom.

Although their research was conducted in a primary setting, it made me reflect on my own practice.  At JMS we have a “FIRST” pledge for pupil premium students which includes going to them first to offer help, marking their books first and targeting them first in questioning and discussion sequences.  But I am also aware that the ‘first’ questions in a sequence tend to be less challenging and of a lower-order than the ideas we build towards.  How far was my targeted questioning perpetuating the pattern that Harris and Williams found and trapping certain students  in low quality interactions?

When thinking about questioning I often use a laminated seating plan to track what I am doing in class.  I’ve used this many times to focus on specific goals e.g. checking whether everyone is contributing, measuring hands-down versus hands-up questions, looking for areas in the classroom that I might be overlooking.  If a peer can come in and complete it for me that is great, but I can complete it whilst teaching.  Each time I asked a question I jotted on the laminated plan the ‘seat’ the question had gone to – a black dot for a relatively low-level (probably closed) question and a blue dot for a more challenging, thought-provoking question.  The outcome was  certainly revealing:  I believed that as I build my questioning to greater levels of challenge I was targeting students to ensure that their thinking was challenged for their current level of confidence in that subject.  Whilst that is certainly the plan, my one week review  of questioning in my mixed ability classes did also reveal that, overwhelmingly, my pupil premium students were getting easier questions to answers, earlier in the sequence and with less ‘meat’ for thought and discussion.    The questioning was carefully planned, but not equitable.

To help I have turned to some random answer generators with which I know many teachers are familiar.  We use MintClass which has this function but a free one can also be found at https://www.classtools.net/random-name-picker/.  I don’t think I’ve made enough use of these tools recently, perhaps seeing them as slightly ‘gimmicky’.  In fact, though, the potential for positive impact in equitable questioning should not be overlooked.

I have used these to supplement, rather than replace planned questioning sequences.  Harris and Williams also note that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may lack some of the social and communication skills to engage in questioning with the fluidity of those from more affluent backgrounds.  A sudden ‘randomising’ spotlight that starts targeting them with questions they are not prepared to answer would not help their confidence or engagement.  However there are well-established techniques to support students in accessing higher-level thinking including thinking time and paired discussion.  My priority at the moment  is consciously ensuring that as I move into more challenging areas with my questioning, I am circling back to some students who have already participated, or whom I might have targeted for lower-order questions to include them in the most challenging thinking in the classroom.

Dialogue in the classroom will always be tricky to manage with 30 individuals participating under any sort of structure.  However, I have recently been reminded of the value of checking, objectively, what I am doing and reviewing and reflecting on my practice even in areas I would consider to be strengths.  Sometimes little changes can make a big difference.

Reflecting on equitable questioning…

  • How do I know that my questioning is ‘fair’ and balanced between different genders, abilities, backgrounds of pupils?
  • How do I look beyond ‘number’ of or ‘distribution’ of questions to think about the quality of question and the level of challenge I offer to different groups of students?
  • What can I try differently this week to shake up established practice? Are there any overlooked tools that might help me reflect on what is happening in my classroom?

 

Research into inequality in questioning:

Harris, D. and Williams, J. (2012) The association of classroom interactions, year group and social class, British Educational Research Journal, 38, 3, 373-397

What happens in your classroom once a student has responded to your question?  Who speaks next?   “Wait time” or “Thinking time” AFTER the student has responded can be every bit as powerful as “wait time” after you have posed a question. 

Just before Christmas I attended the Cheney TeachMeet and heard Jenni Ingram talk about her work on ‘Wait Time’ and it led to a radical rethink of how I conduct questioning in the classroom.  Simply restraining myself from responding immediately to students’ answers has led to an important change in the nature of dialogue and questioning in my classroom.  Few changes have been so simple to implement, shown such obvious immediate impact and been so hard to turn into habit!

Ingram’s main message was that in normal conversation the “thread” can be taken up by anyone in the discussion.  After a question and answer anyone else might chip in, or someone might expand on their thoughts.   However, in many classic question-answer format interactions in the classroom (“IRF:  Initiation – Response – Feedback/Follow-up”) the teacher ‘controls’ the discussion, policing interventions.  When there is a pause silence creates anxiety.   Less than a second of silence starts to feel uncomfortable to both teacher and student.  Teachers  generally leave less than a second after asking a question before rephrasing  or moving on.  Extensive research has shown that extending this gives students more time to think about what they’re going to say, which can lead to learning improvements.

However, just as important can be what happens NEXT, irrespective of how long was left between initial question and student response.  As the controller of the discussion, it is now the teacher’s turn to talk again.   Discomfort grows in less than a second and so the teacher responds in some manner to what the student has said.  This might be to give feedback, to correct the answers, to rephrase it  or to repeat it to the class for emphasis.  All too often, the student’s answer bears relatively little relation to what the teacher says next, as they have not given themselves time to think and reflect, (let alone the students).  One way or another, though, it is clearly “our turn” to talk and we allow ourselves very little time to say nothing at that point.  The dialogue moves on, the stress dissipates and the lesson proceeds.  Perhaps there is another question … wait … student answer – teacher response sequence.  In a questioning sequence this can occur several times.  Even teachers well trained to give  students think time before they respond, typically “pounce” on the response when it is their ‘turn’.

But what happens if we overcome our instincts, ride out the discomfort and do not take our “turn” after the student response?  What happens if we pause beyond the (less than) one second’s discomfort and still say nothing?  What if we don’t affirm what the student has said, or rephrase it, or tell them whether it was correct?

At this point everyone is feeling uncomfortable.  (I know, I’ve been trying this, it’s really not pleasant!).  I feel uncomfortable as it is my ‘turn’ and my responsibility to ‘move’ next.  But, here is the key, so do the students!  They also feel uncomfortable.  And the amazing thing is that, when they feel uncomfortable, students do something that some of them don’t do nearly enough … they start to think.  At this point, Ingram reported a range of responses from students.  In the last few weeks I have seen each of the following:

  1. Probably most commonly, the student who spoke originally extends their answer. They add depth to what they’ve said, often given an example/evidence in my subject or turn a simple answer into more of an explanation.
  2. Another student offers an additional comment, example or adds to the answer.
  3. The student turns to his classmates for help … then see number 2.
  4. Another student hisses a prompt such as “Explain what you mean” or “give some evidence”.
  5. A question is asked by the students. Sometimes this is a request for affirmation “is that okay?”  which I can bounce back to them.  At others it represents a greater depth of thinking  “… but I’m not sure that would always happen.  Did the villagers always respect sanctuary?”

Much of Ingram’s research was in maths, but I was keen to try her techniques in humanities and have been somewhat amazed by the results.  The dialogue in my class has opened up and IRF sequences of questioning have led to some interesting dialogue and extended ideas.

Sadly, the effect does not last very long.  In her talk, Ingram estimated less than 30 days.  Why?  Because teachers fall back into their old habits!  I’ve seen this in myself and so have double-down to remind myself the crucial power of the pause.  Part of the reason I’m writing this is to bring my own attention back to the issue as I’ve returned to some of my old habits with the pressures of the January restart.  I’m determined to prove Ingram’s findings wrong in at least one regard; this is something I want to continue in my teaching for much longer than a month, even if it takes some effort and habit-retraining so to do.

Questions to help reflect on responding to students…

  • At this point, do I need to say anything?  What will happen if I don’t?
  • Can they pick up the dialogue here? Is there more to be said … if  so why must it be me who says it?
  • Is my body-language and facial expression encouraging ‘self-selection’ e.g. open to students picking up the ‘conversation’ rather than waiting for me?

 

Research into wait time can be found here:

Ingram, J. & Elliott, V. (2015) A critical analysis of the role of wait time in classroom interactions and the effects on student and teacher interactional behaviours. Cambridge Journal of Education http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2015.1009365

 

Over the last 6 months I have found student voice to be a powerful tool.  Whilst it has always been something I have taken seriously, in the past I have found it to take more work to gather and analyse data than it was necessarily worth.  However I have revisited this recently and have found how easy now is to garner students’ views, and how effective their ideas can be for enhancing learning, when implemented.

Since beginning my endeavours in this area I have found the process has helped my teaching in a number of key ways including:

Getting to know students a little before teaching them.

I posted previously about my concerns about the use of data and the risk of labelling students before even meeting them (https://jmsreflect.blog/2017/09/04/reflecting-on-critical-use-of-student-data/).  However I still wanted something of a head-start with some of my new classes.  Once I received class lists in the summer, I was able to offer all my new GCSE students the chance to complete a brief (14 question) survey before the summer. From it I learned:

  • That they were most looking forward to studying Crime and Punishment and so I decided to start with that unit.
  • That they were worried about remembering the information and writing extended answers, so I left that for a few weeks to get comfortable with the new GCSE. Most assessments so far have been open book for long answer or simple memory tests so that they only have one anxiety at once.  I have devised ways to build their confidence at learning large amounts of information: for example, with the help of the Horrible Histories song we can now list all the British monarchs for over 500 years which has greatly changed the attitude of some students to the quantity of information they can remember.
  • Some valuable individual comments about what supports their individual learning best which helped me to plan my lessons until I got to know them better individually.

Time to devise and share this questionnaire:  25 minutes.

Time for students to complete (out-of-class): 5 minutes each, responses submitted within 2 weeks.

Time to analyse data: 20 minutes.

 

Reflecting on the impact of my teaching and adjusting it to better support the students.

At the end of my first A-level unit, I ran a simple (6 question) survey about how successful the learning had been, which strategies had most helped them and how I could better support them.  As a result of their feedback the next 3 lessons were given over to their ideas:  we watched a documentary, and reviewed our essays and some core content they wished to go over.  The survey had the impact of a round of carefully planned assessments … but without the marking and the struggle to infer the gaps from a written answer!

Time to devise and share the questionnaire:  15 minutes.

Time for students to discuss and complete (in class): 15 minutes.

Time to analyse:  5 minutes

 

Answering specific questions, comparing learning tools and planning developments for the future.

I have since employed similar questionnaires with a range of other classes and very much plan to continue so to do at the end of this term.  I have discovered that:

  • One A-level class was astoundingly uncommunicative in class discussion. They shared their reasons for this with me and we tried a range of tools to help, which they then evaluated.  Silent/Paper debates and the use of Socrative for anonymous open commentary has really boosted the quality of dialogue we are able to have in the lessons.
  • Some of my exam classes were finding the range of support resources available slightly overwhelming. I was able to run a survey with last year’s students to find out which ones they had most used during their revision and generate a ‘Top 5’ list.  This wasn’t necessarily what I would have expected; but that is the point of asking the students themselves!
  • The year 7s have greatly enjoyed their history and geography units and have found the level of challenge suitable, but do not feel the same engagement with their first RE unit. That will be rewritten and redeveloped for next year.

Time to devise and share small, focused questionnaires and teaching-tool comparisons:  less than 10 minutes.

Time for students to complete (in class):  less than 10 minutes.

Time to analyse data: less than 5 minutes.

Part of my interest has been driven by reading McIntyre and Rudduck’s ‘Improving Learning Through Consulting Pupils’, especially Chapter 7:  What Pupils Say About Being Consulted.  Pupils were very positive about the idea of being consulted, but felt more comfortable giving comments directly about the teaching through questionnaires, rather than face-to-face, for obvious reasons.  The process of consultation helped build their own confidence and, in some ways, their understanding of the learning itself as they looked at lessons from the teacher’s perspective.  However a number of comments were raised about authenticity and the need to see teachers taking their ideas seriously.  For it to be a useful and valuable exercise for both students and teachers, there needs to be follow-up.

This somewhat echoes my experience of large-scale consultation in the past.  Although the students’ ideas were always valued, the exact impact of them can be lost if feeding into high-level systems such as appointments and development plans.  Too often I have seen, and been guilty of, failing to explain to students after the process how their feedback has been used.  One of the most significant improvements in the tools available to me as a teacher has been the ability to deliver simple student surveys and to act on them with almost immediate impact.   It is a tool I shall now be using regularly.

Questions that have helped me to reflect on the use of student voice:

  • What exactly am I trying to find out here? How can I keep the questionnaire as simple and focused as possible?
  • What will I do with this data when I have it? Is there time to respond to this within my teaching plan?
  • How will students know I have reflected on their feedback? Have I planned time to respond to them?

McIntyre, D., & Rudduck, J. (2007). Improving Learning Through Consulting Pupils,  (Improving learning TLRP). London ; New York: Routledge.

Teacher workload and retention are ongoing concerns in many schools at the moment.  Despite the government’s reluctance to recognise the problem (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/government-has-no-plan-tackle-worsening-teacher-shortages) many schools, teachers and experts report difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers.  The impact on teaching, learning and student progress is immediate and apparent to all who have been affected by staff shortages.   Certain areas are hit harder than others and Oxfordshire presents some particular challenges; prices are similar to London and the property market is extremely difficult to get onto, but there is no equivalent living allowance.  Schools are increasingly finding creative ways to recruit NQTs but retention remains an issue: just as they really start to excel, they also desire affordable housing and somewhere to settle down.  They quickly discover how much of a challenge this is in Oxfordshire.

However there is good news for schools.  Teachers value a supportive school in which they are able to develop as professionals in their early years.   Burn et al’s 2016 research showed that (as well as economic factors) there were some key retention factors which are, at least to some degree, within the control of schools, if managed well.  These include:

  • The demands of the job
  • Characteristics of the school (factors leading to departure included “imposition of a very particular teaching style or expectations of a commitment to continued professional learning that were thought to be excessive”.

Supporting our NQTs through their first years is a key challenge at the moment, but things have changed a lot since I was an NQT and so I wonder whether I am always the best person to give advice.  As part of our NQT programme this year, we have planned in some sessions for our second- and third-year teachers to meet with our NQTs and give them the benefit of their experience and wisdom.  (This idea was stolen from another school at a meeting or conference.  I wish I could credit them here … but can’t remember which.  Apologies if it was you … and many, many thanks!)  The sessions are informal, we have given them a budget to go out for coffee or to buy in stocks of cake and treats.  The idea was that they could share (and moan) with people who had recently been through a similar experience and who could show them the light at the end of the tunnel, as well as offering some practical advice.  No managers or SLT or others who might be involved in their assessment, just a chance to ask questions and have a chat.

After the meeting Harriet and Dominic sent me a summary of some of their key advice to the NQTs and it represents some of the best practical advice for new teachers I have seen.  So I am sharing it here:

  • For disruptive students to stay on task: create a to-do list of the lesson for them (inc. Write the L.O, write the title etc.) to speed it up, laminate the tasks that need to be done every lesson and then add to it in board pen to be wiped off for the next lesson. Add a task or practice they can do when complete.
  • Organise seating plans so that weak pupils are easily accessible. If possible, seat with students that are capable (more than one preferably) so that they can teach (challenging themselves) and aid the less able pupil.
  • For form time: put notices on a ppt to save time and as an aide memoire. Perhaps add a puzzle or ‘thunk’ on there too to give them something to think about.
  • Get the tutor group to do more – give them jobs and duties to make them more responsible and relieve the pressure and help keep the tutor’s focus on the really important things.
  • See if parents can be emailed to save time with phone calls. This also allows a photo of the pupil’s work to show what they have done that lesson.
  • Use the ‘tutor report’ system if the tutor group is presenting challenges in several subject. This will also help prioritise who to ring in your phone call hour.
  • Organise your PPAs so that they are protected time and plan what they are for. Not only does this provide protection from the school (who won’t take them, but just in case…) but also from over-generous  “yessing” to every request. Set aside one hour to call parents, one to mark a specific set of books etc. Only take that hour for phone calls- if there are more, they will have to wait for the next specified hour (prioritise!)
  • When ringing home, intersperse negative calls with positive ones. It can be draining being negative. Similarly, after a tough day do some positive calls home. They can really help lift the spirits.
  • Make a blank powerpoint pre-formatted for slides you use all the time. This will half planning time. An automatic date alone can be a great time saver.
  • Extend your screen (from laptop to board) rather than mirroring it and use presenter mode. It makes things a lot easier and allows access to ‘notes view’ and ‘next slide’ to support lesson delivery.
  • Marking- get students to mark as much as possible. Make the success criteria/ mark scheme very clear and they should be able to do it themselves. This will also make them understand what the markers are looking for too.
  • Make a success criteria and only mark for those things. If the list has 10 things, just give them 3 targets each (write the numbers in their books) and then in DIRT time they can work on those three things rather than writing the same thing in 30 different books.

 

Finally, using their budget for the session, they have created a comfort stash of treats and pick-me-ups for the NQTs to access when they need.  This is a simple but brilliant idea I very much want to continue.

As a Head of Department, mentor and now Professional Tutor one thing that has changed since I joined the profession is the universal set of teaching standards.  I am very concerned that many new teachers feel held to a set of standards that I could not have achieved in my first few years and experience pressure to perform in line with teachers of greatly more experience.  The structured approach to my first year of teaching, the feeling that there were key things to achieve and that the journey was one of development was both a support and comfort.   I wonder whether expectations of teachers in their first few years are entirely realistic under the current model.  The next step is to ensure that some of their observations are with younger teachers; it is intimidating to always watch experienced teachers at play, especially if they seem to ‘get it right’ with ease.  Of course, we don’t, but when someone is new it can seem a lot smoother than it really is!

Another thing that developed with time is the sense of resilience and ‘big picture’ thinking.  Only after my first year was I able to review the progress of my class towards the end goal and plan improvements.  I still need to do this every year … but do so with a greater sense of perspective of the impact of mistakes and excitement at the scope to improve.  I can remember when a single bad lesson could ruin your whole week … then the whole day… then learning the resilience to put it in greater perspective.  Learn and move on, balance it against the successes.  However I wonder whether we sometimes put too much pressure on newer teachers to achieve that level of reflection and resilience earlier than they are ready to.  I now know how November feels, how exhausted everyone is by Christmas (students and teachers) and the impact that it can have on behaviour.  I am prepared for it and can take action within school and by planning my work-life balance to support myself and my team through this.  I know what exam season will be like and what support is available during this period when everyone is working so hard.  But this perspective came with time. Regular contact with younger teachers can help both sides.  The NQTs can see where they are aiming in the next couple of years, and the second- and third-year teachers reflect on how far they’ve come.  However teaching is busy, prioritising is difficult and it can be hardest of all for newer teachers.  Therefore we plan to continue to carve out time for them to do this and support each other and I expect more sound, practical advice to come out of this as the year goes on.

Questions that helped me reflect on supporting NQTs:

  • Who is best equipped to understand what they are experiencing and how to navigate the challenges?
  • To whom are they most likely to open up and get quality support and ideas?
  • How much of our programme is driven by their own perception of the support they need as opposed to being pre-designed?
  • Bearing in mind workload, how can we facilitate them getting this support without adding to the pressure or it being an additional ‘expectation’?

 

Burn et al (2016), Recruitment and Retention of Newly Qualified Teachers in Oxfordshire Schools can be found here:  http://www.educationdeanery.ox.ac.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RR-Full-Report.pdf

I recently read Arnot and Reay’s (2004) report on ‘The Social Dynamics of Classroom Learning’ and was struck by the depth and richness of their findings, after doing group interviews with a small sample of year 8 students.  The report is well worth reading although, for me, it was the comments by boys that particularly struck home at this point in my teaching.

The Research

The boys in Arnot and Reay’s research were articulate about their learning and have clear insights into their experiences.  It is well worth reading the original to hear the comments in their own words.  Five key things I took from the article were that:

  • Lower achieving boys generally lacked a clear idea of what made a “good learner” and associate this with certain behaviours such as not talking and doing the homework. 

This is a message they may well have received over years of instruction about behaviour and ‘tellings off’ coupled with rewards when they achieved these goals.  However, if this is their definition of good learning it is hard to see why they would put in the extra effort or work that other students do.  If they have been a “good learner” by completing the homework task, what is the merit in redrafting it to make it a bit better?  What is the value of doing a little further research when you can just make the font slightly bigger?

  • The boys interviewed all wanted to do well, even if they recognised that their own behaviour could be a barrier to this.

It is easy to see that if they are not always sure how to do well, and lack an understanding of what good learning looks and feels like, they are going to struggle with this.  This can lead to them being very extrinsically motivated and feeling under-confident and seeking support and positive reinforcement from those around them.  This could come from messing around with friends or just self-directing onto the wrong tracks e.g. focusing on the number of pages rather than the substance of an essay.  A lot of teachers are thinking about metacognition as a learning tool and it is easy to see how it might be helpful with overcoming this.

  • They had a strong concept of “stupid” and were incredibly anxious about receiving that label, from their peers and their teachers.

I think I have been reminded at every training session back to my PGCE that boys would rather be seen as lazy or naughty than stupid.  They were aware of the trap into which they fell though, with feeling stupid if they were given easy work and feeling stupid if they tried work and found it too hard.  What was striking to me was the amount of emotional tension these boys can feel about their lessons and learning and I wonder whether I am doing enough to take some share of that burden.

  • Friends were often a trusted source of support, even if they then got into trouble for talking.

This led me to reflect on how well I was supporting them in seeking help from their friends if needed.  A lot of my lessons involve group work with a chance to discuss the work before being ‘exposed’ to class or teacher feedback, but my seating and grouping arrangements are, like many teachers, focused on behavioural considerations rather than emotional support.  Our geography team strongly advocates sitting students together in groups in which they are comfortable and I am interested in trying this with my classes to see if it offers better support for underachieving students.

  • The underachieving boys rarely felt empowered to control their own learning.  They saw knowledge as something outside of their control. 

A lot of people seem to be discussing ‘cultural capital’ and ‘educational capital’ at the moment. Broadly speaking these refer to the things you have to bring with you to get the most out of the education system as it stands.  It is easy to forget some of the things that students can find daunting even asking for help or knowing when and how to ask for help to place demands upon them beyond their skill set.

In real life:

Interested to find out more and to see how far this applied to my students I conducted some short interviews at the end of last term with some boys who have been struggling in my GCSE class.  I was staggered by how well their responses fit the findings of Arnot and Reay.  One student, for example, has been in trouble for distracted behaviour, especially in group work.

The first revelation from the interview was his interpretation of what he saw as the most important part of the source analysis task:  “Doing the work.”  I attempted to draw this out further by asking him to clarify which bit was the most important and he said again “Doing all the work.  All of it.”  (Lacking a clear idea of what good learning looked like here but wanting to do well.)

I asked him what the others in his group were doing during this task and he thought a moment before responding that they were “talking about the sheet”.  We reflected on the difference between his approach and theirs and he broadly offered two reasons for the difference:

  • Their competence exceeded his: “they write more quickly”, “they can do it all”. (A strong concept of ‘stupid’ with frequent comparison to peers.)
  • His eagerness to stay out of trouble: “I’ve got to get it all done”, “I get told off for not working hard enough” (Wanting to do well.)

However, underpinning his analysis was a lack of grasp of the significance of the task.  He ended up copying large chunks of the sources into his table, without thinking about what they meant or joining in the discussion with his group.  (He was grouped away from his friends, who he may have trusted more to engage in discussion.)

Essentially, he was overwhelmed by the task and the amount he thought he had to do and did not understand that the key purpose was to discuss the sources.  He felt ‘safe’ if he wrote a lot (even copying) although this put him on track to fail in the discussion and questioning that was to follow, increasing his uncertainty and lack of control.  His experience was of “getting into trouble” for not doing enough work, in my subject and others,  and so he was desperate to up his word count.  I had failed to communicate to him that the core purpose was the discussion about the source material and it was that which I was interested in.   (Uncertain how to seek help and lacked control over his own work.)

Over the half term I have had time to reflect on some ways to better support these boys with their learning.  These are the questions I have been asking myself:

  • Have I done enough to ensure that they are working in a way and with people they are comfortable taking risks with? As an adult I take more risks when with people I trust; why wouldn’t they.
  • I know that this will lead to some off-task and distracted behaviour so how will I manage this?
  • How do I give them clear guidance as to the core purpose of the learning and support them with the less significant aspects without making them feel ‘stupid’?
  • How do I start to build a better concept of ‘good learning’ with these students, to build a more positive experience?

I can’t pretend to have the right answers to these questions yet, but I feel like Arnot and Reay’s work has got me asking the right questions and that can only be a good thing.  I’ll reflect further on what comes out of it in a few weeks.

Reference
Arnot, M. and Reay, D. (2004) ‘The social dynamics of classroom teaching’ in M. Arnot, D. McIntyre, D. Pedder and D. Reay (eds.) Consultation in the Classroom: Developing dialogue about teaching and learning’, Cambridge: Pearson