Helping students help themselves!

Activities designed to develop learner independence

In recent INSET we have raised awareness of how our students can develop as effective learners, by asking teachers to reflect on how their students approach learning, and putting them in the position of learners in challenging situations. The response to the question below often does not need prompting, but it is a valid way to start thinking about changing the poor learning tendencies of many of our students.

“What frustrates you about the way your students approach their learning?”

By now, just a few weeks in to term, I guarantee even those teachers who have just started their careers will be able to compile an accomplished list!

This section contains a short discussion and review of the recent INSET sessions on developing effective learners and assessment. Some of the classroom activities that were employed can be found, with specific classroom examples being used in each case.

The rationale behind these activities will be revisited as well. Others that merit a deeper discussion will appear in subsequent editions.

Some key aims for the sessions were:

  • To see assessment for learning strategies as integral to student activities rather than as something extra.
  • Look at several activities that are designed to inform teachers of student progress and skills.
  • To see how reflective questioning can reveal student thinking.

“When was the last time you learned something from your students that informed your next teaching step? ”

When considering the tool that follow, look to see how the following questions are addressed:

• What is the role of student work in informing the teacher of progress?

• Self and peer assessment strategies

• What can a teacher do to facilitate self and peer assessment?

• What must students do to make the most of self and peer assessment?

Vocab Grid

A particularly useful activity is the Vocab Grid. This is a simple activity that encourages students to have a go at ‘guessing’ or showing off their prior knowledge of certain words. They do this before being given access to some further information – whether this is text based, a map, a recipe, or video does not matter. This gives the teacher a great idea of where individuals are at the start of the lesson. Having interacted with the new material the students return to the grid and complete the second column.

The example here has been taken from a GCSE science lesson, but this activity, as with each of the following are entirely generic and transferable. The grid does not have to have the titles in this example; depending on the group you have it may be appropriate to change the headings a little.

The vocab grid informs the teacher as the activity progresses of the current level of understanding, allowing carefully targeted support. As students work their way through they chart their progress; this can be motivating as they identify areas of new learning as well as more difficult ideas.

Quality Quantity Graph

The Quality Quantity graph [see below] can be a powerful tool to look at the role of students in both self and peer assessment. On completion of any task, be it a major project or a simple five minute activity, ask students to draw a line from the origin to reflect the progress they have made. A target over time would be for the line to at 45°, meaning a quality product of decent length. A line nearly horizontal reflects more production at the expense of accuracy or rigour, while a more vertical line might indicate one point well made at the expense of the bigger picture.

There are, of course, problems with this, especially if we look too deeply into the semantics of graph construction, as a number of us experienced. The main issue comes when giving feedback on to peers. QQ graphs are highly personal and students should not be comparing them. But they should be able to ask questions of each others graphs. Two pieces of work of very different quality might well have similar QQ graphs depending on the students that created them. This does not mean that these students cannot offer constructive feedback to each other using the graphs as a starting point. Some opening gambits to model for this feedback could be:

“Hi Bert, I see you have placed your line nearer Quantity rather than  Quality, can you explain why.“

“Can you explain why you are happy with amount and the detail Belinda? ”

The very act of being involved in this sort of feedback has implications on the individual. The discussion will lead to the person giving feedback to reflect on their own work more, and this is a centrally important role of peer feedback. Whatever form feedback takes it should be given an appropriate amount of time so students can reflect effectively and adapt / evolve how they do things.

Sort it out Yourself! – Moving on maps

Introduced to us by Jill Flack and Jo Osler from Victoria, down under, this procedure was born from the frustrations that teachers the world over experience when dealing with passive students. Invariably when students get stuck their first course of inaction will be to turn to their oracle of all things (teacher) and in one way or another say ‘I’m Stuck’.

More often than not these low level interactions are time wasting, engaging the teacher in exchanges that need not happen. And worse there is the ‘have you got a sharpener, can I lend a rubber’ phenomenon that has been engrained in young people since time immemorial. The limited amount of time we see each student at secondary level should be of the highest quality.

Well, no more we say! More often than not, and this will apply from year 7 right up to sixth form. This terrible learning tendency should be preceded by ‘before I came to see you Miss I’ve tried these myriad other things and still….’ In other words the students consistently had no strategies when they were stuck except to call on the teacher to fix them up.

This often results in a long queue of students needing teacher help. It also reflects a very high dependence on the teacher and a very low level of metacognitive awareness of learning.

It should be noted that this sort of resource cannot simply be given to students. It becomes effective only when the need for a different way of working is identified and agreed with the students. As Jill says “It is not a recipe, and should not be dumped on a class “cold turkey”. It should be a culmination of what is already known and valued by its users”.

Over time, as your learners become familiar with the notion of active over passive learning, taking responsibility, being reflective and making decisions, they will find the moving on map a useful extra resource that allows them to take further responsibility by giving them a strategy for getting unstuck. A similar procedure, the getting started map can be found on the PEEL in practice database.


Silent teaching, part 2

I was very interested to enjoy the success Fergus had enjoyed through the loss of his voice. So I planned a lesson where I was not going to speak until a debrief. The class I chose was the class I felt were my worst listeners. I did spend a good while planning the activities and double checking the resources to ensure they stood alone. This was a useful thing to do and helped me think and plan the transitions between tasks.

The lesson was based around a practical to investigate catalyst activity that required following step by step instructions and lightly analyse collected data. I started the lesson with a reviewing question about what do we remember about catalysts? I simply passed a pen to the first person through the door a pen and pointed at the door. It did not take long for the students to write their contribution on the flipchart and then pass the pen on, allowing me to respond to their responses with questions.

I took some of these ideas and annotated a graph of how enzymes work, it was at this point when they realized that I was not speaking. They instantly saw it as a bit of a game and even the more reticent students started testing their ideas out “does it mean this sir?” This was a remarkably self regulatory session, I even noticed several students stop themselves from shouting out to listen to other students. I prompted the discussion from time to time with written questions. Again a useful process for me as it ensured quality within my questions.

I issued the practical instructions and wrote on the board safety and step 1 step 2 etc. The students responded and I recorded their ideas. I then wrote a deadline of 30 minutes on the board and they set off to work and I began to circulate with a pad of post it notes, onto which I could write messages. At first the messages I gave were instructional, and I quickly identified a problem of this mode of teaching. The students were very keen to get a post it note for themselves, asking why I am I not speaking. A cult of wearing the post-its as a badge of honour spread quickly. A few terse notes “I am more interested in your learning than I am my teaching” soon refocused the class. It was at these points it was most difficult not to speak.

Although it only lasted a few minutes it was very tempting to speak. Luckily (though perseverance and planning were part of this) the lesson moved on and the interactions I was now enjoying were much more productive and subject based. I was also able to catch students doing the right thing and recorded it for them.

The student-student interactions were better than normal with them very active helping each other out, checking ideas in text books and on the internet without prompt.

Darren Mead

Silent teaching, part 1

Sometimes less really is more!

During a particularly bad case of man flu in which I felt the throat had been ripped out of me, I was cheered by the fact that it occurred during the school term, rather than being the usual holiday scourge. The malady was such that the bloody rasping occurred only when I spoke, but other than that I felt fine. Not being a work-shy fop, but mostly because I had recently spent a week out at Muffin Towers (Longhirst), I thought I’d take my classes anyway, and, retaining my pentadactyl function proceeded to type out a greeting to my first class on the whiteboard.

“I can’t speak, but when you hear The Flumps I would like a quality audience so I can give you further instruction.”

By the end of the day I found I had taught three successful lessons, including some silent science demonstrations, using a flipchart to communicate. Below I have attempted to distil some of the reasons for this unexpected triumph:

How I managed the classes

With the lights dimmed I displayed the greeting and explanation of why I was not speaking. The theme to the Flumps was chosen from the music bank as the tune which would signal when I wanted a quality audience. Even the most tardy attention givers were quicker to come round than usual. Things seemed to move much quicker, in large part I suggest, because I did not have to wait to address the whole group before giving instruction. Each progressive task or activity remained on the board for some time, eliminating the need for me to repeat the same thing umpteen times. Though I did carry a pen and large notebook on which I could ask and answer questions in individual and small group situations, I was genuinely impressed by the level of questions that were addressed to me.

Almost immediately those naff interactions that plague us all, such as where’s the bin, have you got a sharpener, my pen’s broke, can I lend a pen, and even some of the more reasonable poor learner tendencies were less prevalent. Only at the beginning of the lesson were students coming up to me when they were stuck or they wanted to check something.

Because they could not get instant gratification, or even a rebuke for being lazy, as verbal response (they had to wait for me to get out my pen and notebook), they soon discovered that it would be quicker to try another route and did what I had been trying to get them to do all year, which was to sort their own problems out independently.

My sixth form group particularly enjoyed the practical session they were in. My written instructions were updated throughout the session and, unless there were key learning points or safety instructions, I could add commentary to specific groups or named students in the background. It seemed that more credence was given when the instruction was given via the whiteboard and again, as I mentioned earlier, the instructions remain on the board for a while, removing the need to get all students off task together listen or to for repetition.

By the end of the session what was on the whiteboard was effectively a blog that could be reviewed. They referred firstly to each other, made much better use of their exercise books in which prompts to the problems for this lesson could be found, searched out text books and went online. I was able to show short videos. I realise that a large part of the success was that me not speaking has an impact as something unusual, but since then I have made a conscious effort to distil what went well, and how it moved my students to be a little more independent.

I am not, of course, advocating that we refrain from talking to our students, but those interactions that we do have can be of a higher quality when we take those extra few seconds before offering responses. The terrible chasm of silence in one-to-one situations between student and teacher will often lead to the student saying something else, perhaps thinking the problem through out loud– this true for teachers and students alike.

Incidentally, it took no longer for students to achieve a quality audience when I simply waited for silence than it usually does with a countdown.

Fergus Hegarty

…another teacher’s experience trying out the same technique next week!

Knittin’ for a Livin’ (Issue 7, Comnference June 2010)

– Art & Enterprise – making a business out of creativity

I have been frustrated with having to answer this question since I started teaching and decided that it was high time I did something about it! So when Ian and Naomi mentioned that they had seen this slightly kooky ‘big knitter’, who had started her own business with this inventive idea, I thought this would be an excellent insight for the Applied Art and Design course. Showing the students that you can make a successful business from your creativity must be better than just telling them, and also to give them a break from their teacher for a day!

Ingrid’s ‘big knitting’ business involves her knitting with super sized needles, and instead of wool she used recycled lengths of fabric. She also holds the world record for knitting with the biggest knitting needles!

The first half of the day the students asked pre-planned questions to Ingrid about her business and how she started and developed it. They discovered where she got her inspiration from and how she made sure she retained her creativity in a sea of business paperwork and form filling!

The students soon warmed to Ingrid’s anecdotal way of speaking and were making notes about her life and business. The students were aware that these notes would turn into a presentation in their sketchbooks about the day.

Ingrid and I were keen that the students get an insight into what her business entailed and the only way to do that was to get out the big knitting needle and start knitting. This proved to be extremely taxing for both the students and myself, although luckily Ingrid was in her element. She organised a production line where one half of the class ripped up the fabric that the other half of the class needed to knit.

I was asked to make sure that a small group of students managed to cast on their knitting and this was where the fun began, this was the first demonstration I had of casting on…so we all were making sure that everyone else’s knitting was working out. Then, one of the students caught on faster than me so was able to show me and the others in easier terms that I was able to. The knitting came on really well and in the afternoon the students swapped over so everyone got an experience at the big knitting.

By the end of the day the air in the classroom was full of fabric fibre and all you could hear was the clunking of the wooden knitting needles. In the evaluation of the day students spoke of how refreshing it was to see a successful artist and they could see how with a bit of insight and organisation they might be able to achieve the same. One student enjoyed the day so much that they have organised to go to Ingrid’s studio in Northumberland for their work experience.

Nicola English

Show us your money (Issue 7, Conference June 2010)

The subject matter of this article (teaching enterprise skills to pupils) seems particularly pertinent at this point in time given the current state of the European and British economies.  Society sorely needs these entrepreneurs of the future! – Ed.

– Pitching to the Dragons develops many skills in ICT

In ICT one of the units of coursework involves students working in teams on an enterprise proposal to raise awareness fora campaign.

They have to create a successful strategy that will persuade people to offer their support and fund the campaign. Students have free choice over the campaign and they have chosen to raise awareness of knife crime, racism in sport, drugs and many other issues.

Part of the campaign involves students producing a range of promotional items that will capture the attention of the public and some of the items could be bought to raise money for the campaign.

To put this into real life perspective students were shown a video clip of the TV programme Dragons Den. They were then asked to produce their own proposal for the Dragons (classmates) and carry out a role play based on the Dragons Den but using their coursework scenario.

The aim was to allow students to see strengths and weaknesses in their proposals under ‘interrogation’. This is also a useful life skill for students who would like to start their own business in the future to give them an insight into how rigorous their proposals need to be.

After watching the video clip the class were broken up into groups of 4. One group were chosen by the teacher to be the Dragons, one team were chosen by the teacher to present their proposal to the Dragons and the rest of the groups were chosen to come up with a range of challenging questions that would be used by the Dragons during the interview.

The team presenting their idea to the dragons were sent to another room to work on their presentation while the rest of the class brainstormed relevant questions in their groups and then shared their questions as a class to come up with the best 10 questions for the dragons to use. The dragons were also involved in thinking of a range of questions that would be selected.

Students were allowed 20 minutes to prepare for the role play. After the role play all students were then asked how the role play had been successful in allowing them to see the strengths and weakness of their own team’s proposal. They were then asked to discuss one weakness they had identified as a result of the role play and to then work on improving this in their enterprise strategy.

At the end of the lesson students were required to reflect on what they had improved in their strategy that would ensure it would stand up to rigorous investigation if this were a real life scenario. Selected students were asked to share their reflections with the class. As part of coursework requirements students are also asked to write a log every lesson of what they have achieved and to identify problems and explain how they overcome them.

Linda Rowe