Yesterday, I ran a workshop at #ReadTL15 and was absolutely terrified, as usual. I doubt that I will ever get over the fear of speaking in front of teachers and whilst it may hinder the process of getting my ideas across, I feel that it is a fear that encourages me to put validity behind my words. Good fear.
My topic was some two years in the making and very much geared not to answer questions but create them. We often look at the format and content of our teaching, resourcing accordingly and adapting the way in which we deliver to engage but I am in the process of studying how we allow students to develop as people along the way. The thing that keeps teachers awake at night is incredibly subjective and mean is this: what impact can I make to enable young people to empower themselves?
Essentially, it is not English that I want to teach; my course content is almost (almost!) my secondary intention when it comes to teaching. I am far more interested by how I am contributing to the process of young people forming their sense of self.
Now, I know how grand that sounds, so let me put this into context for you a little and please be considerate of the fact that this is in the most basic of terms- in twenty years, do I want to be content in the knowledge that I was a good teacher of English or do I in fact want to know that instead of teaching, I facilitated the development of young people as they realised and celebrated their strengths, developments and attributes?
Two things. This is a theory which has limited but significant data. The other thing- it needs TIME, like all effective and meaningful theories within education- to quote Matt Bromley, ‘there is no silver bullet.’
Yesterday, I tried to segment this down into steps of a journey within the classroom to provide further context. When you are discussing something as lacking in tangibility as ‘drive,’ you need a little of the concrete.
Imagine your first day with a new group of students. What do you do? How do you build rapport, develop relationships, gain trust in such a short time? I like to carry out a task that allows me to identify the strengths and specific characteristics of a group. A shipwrecked task is good- select the loudest pupil to direct roles for each member of the class. The roles may not be suitable for the particular student, or may perhaps be particularly biased on the directing students’ part but it helps you to see the entire group’s interactions but more importantly, what they bring to the group. This process is about helping students their strengths and reinforcing this in different ways over time. I provided examples of role cards yesterday with specific praise attached (‘I’ve chosen you because you are fantastic at encouraging others’ or ‘you are a natural leader to consolidate ideas’)or a personalised conversation that introduces a new seating plan (‘you are sitting next to such-and-such because you have a calming presence whilst they will develop your confidence verbally’). Alongside behaviour, your positive language in the first third of the academic year is significant because 1) you are currently in a role as teacher to the students (will explain what I mean later, promise) and 2) something you say cannot be undone. Again, simply put but easily forgotten at times.
I am at the first stage of handing over a sense of ownership to students at this point; they are recognising their place within my classroom and additionally realising that the strengths that they already possess can transfer to success within my subject. Peer assessment holds real gravity with regards to knowledge and criteria but it seems important to praise individual’s character, consistently and with justification; students value your opinion to a greater degree than peers and at this point in the teacher-student relationship, they are looking for you to almost prove your capabilities to them as a teacher. The challenges that are found with any new class’ behaviour is centred around their curiosity to see what you know and how much you will care.
The other element that I have started to pilot over the last two years is the element of choice. Instead of creating worksheets, I asked students what type of task would suit the learning objective. Instead of resources for the classroom, I asked students what they felt they would benefit from on the walls. Instead of setting homework tasks, I asked students to create a project title for the unit of work and then create something for homework that responded to that project title. I have invited students to attend focus groups to ascertain the success and possible adaptation of resources before using them with classes. Each unit ends with a survey for all classes as their final homework to feed back on what worked or what could be developed and improved. This opened up discussions around other approaches around the school that students found was beneficial and again, created a sense of ownership. I deliberately select the less engaged learner; they are the most honest and the ones who will Their opinion not only mattered, but they were helping to mould and shape their own learning journey. In a Key Stage 3 independent learning survey (alongside a student voice session), 95% students responded, of which 90% stated that they preferred being given the freedom to choose their own homework. In the student voice session, one student stated that the choice was better because it allowed them to ‘show the topic the way we do best.’ Students recognised their own strengths and utilised them accordingly. Need an idea? One homework was this:
I then outlined the aspect of leadership within the classroom. In the same way that leaders are created through self-empowerment coupled with the open mindset to learn from others, students demonstrate the same processes and experiences. At this late point in the year with my classes, one of the most rewarding parts is seeing the confidence of students grow. It is at this point in a relationship with students that you can allow them to view you as a facilitator rather than a teacher- leadership can take its form through student-student mentoring, ‘Genius bars’ where students become masters of an aspect of the topic, student led learning (students select the direction that the lessons take or even the order of learning), or students lead parts or all of the lesson themselves.
Questions/ challenges? I was asked how this accomodates for those SEN pupils that value structure and require a frame for learning. My experience so far is that it is those children that have made most progress over the period of time that I have taught them. They are more confident with approaching their learning, recognise the ways in which they can excel and how to demonstrate that. Feedback from one dyslexic students’ parent last week was such,
‘he does enjoy the choice of activities you provide. I know (*&^%! has been more focused this year in English than previous years. So I want to thank you for all your help and support. I have my fingers crossed he may have the pleasure of you teaching him next year!’
The other question put to me was surrounding the concept of choice vs requirement- how do we bring them back in to do the test or write after they have had choice up to that point? Being given the opportunity to input and ownership over their learning has strengthened the students’ learning to then transfer into a written assessment or reading analysis because they have had a free choice of how they have reached the end point. They respect in the same way that we do as teachers that there will be an exam at the end of it all, that we still have that to demonstrate. It is not about teaching students content and how to pass a test, it is about arming them with the tools to self-regulate.
A final question was put to me regarding time constraints; how can we let students take hold of the learning when we are the experts that have content to work through within a specific and off limited timescale? My response was that it was not yet something that had presented itself to me as a challenge. The students had followed a similar outline to the one that I would have followed, but this method simply allowed them to tailor it to themselves as individual.
My next steps? I intend to formulate this concept a little more and identify research that supports individualised learning- Eric Mazur’s original flipped theory makes a start on what it is that I hope to achieve, and Denise Pope and Maureen Brown’s Overloaded and Underprepared outlines the value of an active pupil presence and voice within schools. In a time where it feels a little like exams are the endgame, I wanted to keep the idea alive that we are helping people to grow too. Which is a pretty big deal.