An Action Research Project by Joanne Whalley (MFL)
Reading time: 12 minutes
Context – Autumn 2016
Teaching is good within the department but there could be more focus on developing student resilience and independence as this is a subject which is traditionally quite teacher led and reliant on the teacher as the main resource. Evidence in lessons of students being more resourceful and taking ownership of their own learning would help us to achieve a greater degree of excellence. In addition, this will bring about a welcome sense of student autonomy which could revolutionize current approaches which can be very teacher-centred (and at times, it could be said that the teacher is working harder than the students!).
With the introduction of new GCSE criteria and the removal of National Curriculum levels a whole school approach to grading has been introduced and the first step in developing student independence was to ensure that they understand what their next steps are. Students self and peer-assess using the grade criteria and grade criteria are shown alongside lesson objectives and assessments. This grade criteria document, which is found at the front of all students’ exercise books acts as a useful “how to” signpost for all students in identifying their next steps and setting goals for the coming term. Thus, students have a growing sense of security in what they can do well and what they need to improve in order to achieve a higher grade.
See below an example of the assessment criteria sheet for Key Stage Four students. Through a series of self, peer and teacher assessments early in Year 10 prior attainment is plotted on the criteria (marked in red), the end of Key Stage Target is also marked on the grid (marked in green) and steps that need to be completed to demonstrate progress being made towards those target criteria are marked in yellow and dated by the student or teacher. Students or teachers can also identify current priorities or next steps after an assessment, this is done in blue and signed and dated by the teacher when achieved.
This has enabled students to have a very clear picture of what they are able to do, what they aim to ultimately achieve and what their immediate priorities are, which would bring about a step change in results. This strong sense of direction and ownership has enabled students to ensure that when they are completing new pieces of work that they include the necessary components in order to reach a particular grade.
More importantly it has given students a very clear pathway to follow and they have been able to begin to make significant “jumps” by trying techniques which they might not have ordinarily thought of including. In short, students have been more willing to take a risk rather than producing work at a level at which they feel comfortable, very close to their current level of attainment.
Figure 1: Grade criteria for MFL
Development – December 2016
After having completed a work book scrutiny and a peer observation of a colleague within the English department, I trialed marking with a highlighter to improve student engagement with written feedback and their ability to identify targets for improvement. I have adopted a three colour approach (red, amber, green) and have linked these to the success criteria for a given task. Students in Years 7, 8 and 10 have successfully used the guidance provided to peer and self-assess work, grading it, picking out what they have done well and then identify targets for improvement. This approach is more positive and although it should not be the sole type of marking employed as it does not highlight spelling or grammatical errors, it clearly shows what a student is doing well and then by the absence of the next colour, it shows what a student should work on next. In addition, this technique is quick and simple, as well as very visual and can help when undertaking moderation as you can clearly see which grade is the best fit by the colours shown on a particular piece of work. Samples of these pieces of work have been displayed in classrooms so students can see why a certain piece of work has gained a particular grade, furthermore copies of this have been kept centrally as a reference point for sample work at grades 2 – 6 so far ( and all the sub grades between). A development for the next academic year is to have some laminated versions of these to use as models for students when preparing extended written pieces.
Having laid the foundations of student understanding of how to identify their next steps, I became more confident that students would engage with a more student led approach. Thus, I undertook a series of lessons focusing on student-led learning in January 2017 with Year 10 students.
Research before the lesson
In the first few months of this project, I read a number of short publications and blogs about risk taking and there seemed to be common themes emerging.
- As a teacher you should model failure / risk taking – we have a choice to do something simple or slowly forever or to try and improve your performance and risk making a mistake.
- If you don’t take a risk you are unlikely to get any better but you need to feel safe to take a risk.
- Don’t implement too many changes at once.
- You need to provide (decent) opportunities for risk taking, you need to invest time in it.
- Give students freedom in the way they approach a task
- Do something meaningful with a clear purpose
- Take student views on board
Risk taking lesson 1
From these key points I decided upon my approach to my first “risk tasking lesson”. I began the lesson by showing the group, my first ever attempt at skiing on my own without an instructor. It was a perfect example of how I was perfectly in control, very safe but taking no risks whatsoever, avoiding all inclines and I explained, that I would have remained at that level if I hadn’t found the confidence to take a risk. In order to make sure the students felt safe, I planned the lesson so that the tasks were achievable, I was working on the basis of proximal development, students needed to feel that the task was (almost) achievable if they were to be willing to keep going when it became challenging. Group work, provided support and in terms of reassurance that the students were on track to meet the challenge, I gave regular verbal feedback throughout the session. I did not direct the students as to how to tackle the task but put at their disposal some suggested resources. I explained clearly how we would be using the knowledge from the lesson in our later work.
Students were divided into mixed ability groups. There were four groups. Three of the four groups had one more able student, due to the composition of the class, the fourth group was made up of three middle ability learners and one less able.
The groups were given an envelope with a series of 6 challenges to complete over a period of a two hour lesson. They were given a set of rules which outlined the resources they were able to access and what they were not allowed to do. Whilst I circulated the class, I would give hints, reassurance and guide the students through questioning, I would not give them answers to the challenges unless they used one of their 5 help cards, (interestingly, by the end of the two hour lesson the maximum number of cards used by any group was 3, which shows how independent they were trying to be).
The challenges were planned according to Blooms Taxonomy (Knowledge > Understanding> Application) and therefore became incrementally more difficult. The task set was to find out when to use the Imperfect tense, how to conjugate it, to apply it to key phrases on the topic of local area and then use this to translate a paragraph.
The plan for the 2 hour lesson:
Challenge 1 > Acquiring knowledge – When do we use the Imperfect tense?
Challenge 2 > Developing knowledge and understanding – How do we form the Imperfect tense?
Challenge 3 > Developing understanding and applying the rule – Are there any verbs which don’t follow the rule? Apply the rule to familiar verbs
Challenge 4 > Application in the context of current topic – translation of useful phrases for describing where you used to live when you were younger
Challenge 5 > Application in a translation task.
It was fascinating to watch the dynamics of each group. Initially, two of the three most able students were afraid to commit ideas to paper and seemed to be worried about making mistakes. The middle ability learners demonstrated much more of a “have a go” attitude and were very motivated by the points awarded to each team for each challenge. The most able learners tended to monopolise their groups initially when the task was straight forward and the other members of the group initially deferred to them, thinking that their input was not as valid as other students who they considered to better at French than them. However, they demonstrated less resilience when the work became more challenging. A student who is a high achiever due to a very positive work ethic, hard work and determination was plagued with self-doubt and floundered much more than the less able students in the class. The final task completed involved translation and one of the most able students is nearly bilingual and at this point he began to take the lead, interestingly his level of accuracy was not good and the less able students in his group who were actively applying the knowledge that they had acquired by following the rules of the tense were able to correct his mistakes as he was relying on “gut feel”. His over confidence and reluctance to accept help from other members of the group resulted in the group not finishing the translation task as much time was wasted through guessing where he was going wrong rather than consistently applying what he had learned.
The most effective group in terms of speed, accuracy and collaborative skills were the group of middle ability learners, perhaps because there was not a clear leader to defer to, they all felt that they had something to contribute which led to greater efficiency. I was most impressed with the way in which they sought to acquire knowledge, with everyone in the team playing a part and then they rigorously applied the knowledge and when in doubt referred back to the resources available, showing a great deal of determination and resilience as well as resourcefulness.
Conclusions and next steps
Students were mostly positive about the way that they had been learning, though I would note that collaboration seems to be of most benefit to middle ability students who are keen to succeed and who like to receive affirmation from their peers that they are doing the right thing. The very least able can still tend to be passive but towards the end of the lesson was tentatively seen to make more contributions to the group. Most able students, who are used to being right most of time and who perhaps need this regular verbal affirmation from the teacher throughout the lesson, were the students who struggled with the concept most.
On reflection, this was a good first lesson of this nature. I perhaps could have been stricter, giving less hints and I could have forced students to use their help cards more. I could plan to make the task even more challenging, by giving students less obvious resources to find the information, thus making the investigation more open ended, with more chance of failure but for a first lesson this would have made students less likely to engage with this way of working. In this lesson, the level of challenge was appropriate. In the future, during the mid – plenary reflection I would encourage students not only to reflect upon what they are learning, and how they are learning but also the effectiveness of the way in which the group was working.
During the next lesson, I returned the corrected translations to the groups and asked students to consider the success criteria to identify why I have given those particular scores. (I used highlighter marking to identify key parts of the work). The final step was for individual students to undertake a translation task and a creative writing task so that I am able to gain a good understanding of individual’s grasp of the grammar and give personalised feedback to each member of the class. At this point students were better prepared for this challenge and understood what would make a more successful piece, they tackled the task and all performed well in relation to their ability , independently making use of resources to produce work of good quality.
The students were also given a similar type activity for homework. They were divided into 4 groups by ability and were given a research task appropriate for their ability. They had to research the element of grammar and produce a step by step guide of how to form it. They also had to produce a game or activity to practice this grammar point. They then presented their findings to mixed ability groups so that by the end of the lesson all students had presented their findings on a range of grammatical points concerning the perfect tense.
In my opinion, this element of the “pilot” was less successful, students worked on this at home and as such two of the vital elements of the risk taking exercise were lacking; peer support and reassurance from the teacher. This meant that students no longer felt safe and therefore displayed less resilience. Several of the less able and less conscientious students, including the only disadvantaged student said they had been confused by the task and had not completed the homework, whereas those who were ordinarily hardworking, determined and well-motivated, tackled whichever task they had been set with a resilient approach. In addition, the homework task was set within the context of the success criteria for Key Stage Four and as such I had felt that the objective for the activity was clear, however, on reflection perhaps students were less comfortable with taking a risk because they could not see a clear enough link, or “the point” of learning in this way. In the classroom, with constant reinforcement and good student > teacher relationships, students are more likely to display a determined approach even when they find the task confusing.
As a result of what I had discovered through my Year 10 experimental lesson, I have drawn out the most successful elements and widened my use of them. Throughout the rest of the academic year I continued to use these strategies with several of my classes:
- Setting independent research homework based around grammar points
- Peer teaching of what they have discovered
- Students producing resources to help each other consolidate knowledge (games mostly)
- Regular use of these grammar points within classwork and homework, linking closely to assessment criteria
- Peer assessment / highlighter marking / students showing not only correct use of the grammar but also that they know that by demonstrating use of more complex structures they will achieve higher grades.
These elements have been successful in giving students an increased sense of independence and self-confidence and a clear understanding of the relationship between how learning various grammar points allows them greater opportunities to climb the grade ladder which we have created. When we have discussed this in class, students have stated that they like to be able to clearly see what ”ingredients” they need for each grade as it sharpens their focus on how to take control of their own progress.
If learning involves risk taking, teaching involves trust building – Marilla Svinicki – University of Texas (The Professional and Organisational Development Network in Higher Education)
Taking risks in your teaching – Maryellen Weimer PHD ( www.facultyfocus.com)
Creating a safe space for students to take academic risks – Kristi Johnson Smith (Learn NC – University of North Canada)
10 risks every teacher should take with their class – A J Juliani ( http://ajjuliani.com)
Creating a risk taking classroom environment – Mr Gilliespies’s Office – http://reedgillespie.blogspot.co.uk
‘Balance, high ropes, about paris’ by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0
‘Freerider’ by Up-Free on Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0
‘African – Asian’ by OpenClipart Vectors on Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0