Student voice

– What Students Tell Us About Our Teaching

How often do we listen to our students, our customers? I like to think I do, but, I must confess it’s probably at a cursory level. This article is me really listening! It is based on thirty reflections completed at the end of a project by my students. It is purposely anecdotal rather than statistical as students are too often reduced to a number.

I must confess I love the final half term of school, the exams are finished and a small window of opportunity to experiment with the curriculum is granted. This summer, the Science department at our school tried something different, very different. We turned over the lessons to our students in a very real way. This is our attempt at training our year 9 students in how we want them to learn come next September. Ken Brechin was the genius behind the marvellous “Brainiac” challenge. Brainiac Science Abuse is a Sky TV show that performs weird, wacky and wild scientific experiments. This was our chance to really enthuse our students about science and give them “intellectual control”. This article is a summary of the students’ experiences and what we as teachers can learn from them.

So what was the Brainiac Challenge?

Before we proceed a brief synopsis of the Brainiac challenge will be useful. Students were assigned to groups, then had to storyboard and script an episode of Brainiac Science Abuse, and present their ideas to executive producers – their class mates. They had free reign of what science they did and which experiment to perform and explain in front of the class. They were given a substantial 6 hours of lesson time to prepare. To reflect on their experience of the challenge students were given a choice of questions to respond to.

So what did they make of this, and what does it tell us about teaching and learning?

Tough beginnings lead to first success

Overwhelmingly the students found this experience “fun”, “enjoyable” and “exciting”, although this was very much a summation of their overall experience. Progress was slow at the start since the task was so open-ended. They found it difficult to make the decision on what to do and found this frustrating with one student commenting

“Once we started designing our show I was not very enthusiastic towards it, but after a few lessons I started to enjoy it. ”

It became clear that the ownership of the learning was the enjoyable part. Would the students enjoy these lessons to the same extent if they were teacher led, or if only a short time was allocated to develop the task.

“I remember thinking and panicking are we ever going to get anywhere with this, and when would the group start working together and getting things done. ”

This quote also illustrates initial trepidation, but shows they were investing emotionally in the activity. Having an extended period of time is essential for students to properly take intellectual control over their learning, though I hope they will get quicker as time goes on. They are used to short, fragmented lessons with many and varied teacher input. They are not used to doing so on such a scale.

Our students are lucky enough to enjoy a Learn to Learn course in which the 5 R’s (Resilience, Reflection, Resourcefulness, Responsibility and Reasoning) are taught and developed. It is when students are challenged that they really get to apply the 5 R’s.

“I had to be really responsible and resilient to complete this project rang truly one comment. It was indeed the students showing these qualities, though it was a show of resilience on my part not to jump in! ”

Blank pages are full of opportunities

The open-ended nature of this challenge allowed students to take control and use many skills such as; “making decisions”, “adapting”, “team working”, “negotiating” and “solving problems” to mention a few that I did expect, as well as a few that I did not expect; “listening”, “drawing”, “designing with restrictions” and “independent learning skills”.

What struck me most, however, was the sense that students were developing and improving these skills, so what initially seemed like a large chunk, nearly two weeks, of science teaching time became a mere 6 lessons. I am wondering if we dedicate enough time to these skills within our lessons.

It is important to make it clear that the teachers did retain actual control of the class (without the students realising). This was achieved by the detailed creation of the challenge, keeping perspective on what our success criteria were and our provision of quality feedback to our students on these criteria. Another trick I used was to provide grids at the beginning of each session, which students could use to agree success criteria for themselves.

They also had the opportunity to review at the end of each session. This gave each lesson purpose and direction. We were able to comment on them in between sessions too. Students did find these useful with six students using the term success criteria (despite it not being mentioned on the review sheet. This shows that success criteria are valued by students and helps them gain a sense of achievement.

Comments ranged from “not very exciting” to “I felt proud of what we did”. Whilst others found it difficult to make comments at all “because we were so involved in the challenge”.

This highlights the need for teachers to organise and run a quiet reflection time each lesson. It would be a shame if they did not get to articulate their feelings about the experience.

Pros and Cons of group work

I must signal a word of warning, that this style of teaching does create pressure that may not always be positive. Students’ skills in negotiating and delegating can be crude and therefore could lead to inequalities in labour division. Yes, the challenge of getting things done to a strict deadline is helpful, and it is evident in the reflections that it played a major part in their learning. But this can put some individuals pushing over the edge of their comfort zones.

A lot of pressure was put on me and I didn’t like it. It was a hard job. I struggled with the script and didn’t manage to finish it.”

Although only one student reflected upon this, teachers must be aware, and spend time developing the community of your classroom. Most students made their task easier by relying on their group for assistance. One student makes this perfectly clear:

I thought this challenge would be really hard but when everyone in the group thought about it together it didn’t seem that hard anymore. ”

Students were grouped using my knowledge of their strengths, a balance by gender and one or two classroom management decisions. This class is used to working in different groups. They are familiar with the routine of arriving at the lesson, and checking the board to find out which groups they will work in that day. So new groupings are very much taken in their stride.

Only one student claimed they would have been more productive if they “worked with their friends”, but this was countered by multiple responses that said “my group was nice”, “ I liked my group” and even “it was good to work with people I wouldn’t normally work with”.

The student presentations were a revelation to me as, although I had been observing closely their progress each lesson, I had yet to see a final product. Their quality, with some variation was exceptional. They explained ideas succinctly and made it obvious that they had researched and asked questions.

A particularly pleasing outcome was the fact that they felt they had learned from other presentations. Some reflections were “the presentations we saw were filled with information and facts”, “I was impressed”, “I enjoyed watching other groups”, and my personal favourite “we didn’t just learn form our own experiment

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, but also from everyone else’s.”

The presentations were surprisingly slick for 13 year olds. Many of the presentations were enhanced by the use of ICT, images and music. Like the TV show the students had raised many questions to answer by performing an experiment or scientific demonstration.

* Which vegetable is the strongest?

* Do fruit flavoured sweets taste like fruit? – (This involved me being blindfolded and taste testing lemons and limes, I may be too trusting, though no misfortune befell me!)

* Is it possible to put Humpty Dumpty together again?

* Can you make a milk bottle fart? The students were keen to pose their own questions and took the opportunity to use question dice to help formulate them. Their quest was then to answer them with real science.

The students were asked to feedback to each other in small groups and had designed feedback tools that they distributed. This is an important reflective activity and can provide stimulus to students in future activities.

“When we watched other groups presentations I couldn’t help feeling that they were so much better than I expected ”

The peer feedback was welcomed and was based on the agreed success criteria

“We met the success criteria, getting good feedback from Mr Mead and the other teams. ”

I am glad I was mentioned here. It is nice to see my students value my feedback. They give and receive feedback consistently with me and each other, so I need not be worried peer assessment will lack the rigour that makes it valuable to its recipients.

The learner qualities of 13 year olds

Problem solving is a feature prominent in many of the student reflections, with the solving of problems adding to the enjoyment of this challenge. This was pleasing although they were not usually forthcoming in describing the thought processes involved – an area for development here. “Teamwork” and “Togetherness” were common phrases and, intriguingly, one student claimed “We overcame a problem by using black hat thinking”. This student does not embellish this thought, but he has obviously seen it as a tool which he found helpful.

During the end of lessons reviews students were issued with a table of thinking words with one group utilising these well in describing their thinking “We all imagined our end products”, “We distributed tasks and interpreted information, “We identified tasks that we have to do”, All this leads me to the conclusion that my students are just starting a journey of using tools to aid thinking, but they have begun and I hope the next step is exponential.

Target setting was also a keen feature of their reflections; these were honest about work rate with direct targets such as “Instead of wasting time talking I would get started straight away” (although I disagree with this as I observed barely any off task behaviour), or technical ones like “I would have included a PowerPoint (maybe with some music)”, “We would have rehearsed”, “Learn the script and be more enthusiastic”.

All of these would have improved the quality of their presentations. These targets show that students have high expectations of themselves and, if anything, are overly critical of their performance.

My final thought on these lessons is on the last activity my students and I did, and what inspired this article. This being the honest and expansive reflections that my students so generously indulged in. It is clear that they feel successful and proud, not only of their achievement, but also of their ability to learn.

As I said at the beginning of the article, I love the final half term where the imagination can run wild, learning is unrestrained and the students have a chance to teach me things. And these things are….

1. Plan open ended activities

2. Allow time for students to make mistakes and correct them

3. Learning is fun, as long as some challenge is provided

4. Teachers must value the 5 R’s (and other learner skills) as much as content

5. Success criteria are essential

6. Provide a variety of opportunities so that they can take control and make decisions

7. Teacher feedback is essential

8. Build a safe, risk taking environment

9. Consider student groups carefully and use different groupings regularly

10. Have high expectations of students – they will pick up on this and adopt them for themselves.

11. Plan time for reflection

12. Students are a resource for each other

As an afterthought I noticed a marked similarity between what my students told me and the “PEEL principles of teaching for quality learning”. I have faithfully listed these here for you to make a comparison for yourself. It is unsurprising to see that our students are experienced learners and know what’s what when it comes to how they should learn. To find out more all we have to do is listen.


Sailing away with visual anchors (Issue 8, January 2011)

– Using visuals to improve learning attributes

This is a really simple idea that will improve the learning attributes of an individual student and is easy to implement in any classroom.

In Learn to Learn the students have completed a profiling task that assessed where the students were currently at with respect to each of the 5Rs. At a recent L2L meeting Ken Brechin posed the question “So what are you going to do about it?” and gave us sections of Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power in Action (2005, TLO Ltd) book to give us some ideas to try out. The visual anchor was one of the ideas in the book that caught my eye. A visual anchor is a prompt that the student will see every lesson that reminds them of the R they are trying to improve. The visual anchor shows what success in this R will look and feel like to help the student achieve their goal. In the BLP in Action book this idea was used solely for improving resilience but I believe it can be used to improve a student’s performance in any R.

In practice I asked the students to look back at their profiler and identify the R they need to improve the most. The students then drew a picture of what success in this R would look like with specific reference to the profiler. The picture just had to help that individual student progress and did not have to relate to the classroom environment. For example Ross, identified that he must be more resilient and to do this he should have a more positive attitude. He then drew a picture that will help remind of this in future lessons and stuck this picture to the front of his work book (see below).

This simple tool will see improvement in learner attributes and can be applied across a range of subjects. What does it look and feel like if a student is reflective and spots his mistake himself in Maths or English? What  does it look and feel like if a student shows reasoning and hits extended abstract on the SOLO Taxonomy? (See a description of SOLO Taxonmy on page 24 [in the article “Relay Review”, to be posted in the coming weeks. Ed.] ) What does it look and feel like if a student is responsible and listens to members of their team in PE? Reminding students of their vision of success each lesson will make improvement their next port of call.

Joe Spoor