Nurturing a Growth Mindset with Year 11 Boys

An Action Research post by Kevin Magner

Reading time: 8 minutes


A class of 13 Year 11 boys with a variety of different needs to be prepared for a GCSE exam in Religious Studies – what is the biggest challenge?

At the start of the year I decided that the challenge lay in getting the boys to believe in themselves and that, despite anything that had gone before in their educational experience, they still had the opportunity to reach or exceed their target grades.   For many of the boys  a history of low achievement and a variety of other social and learning needs made it that much harder for them to succeed.  As GCSE exams loomed on the horizon it was time to try and help them to raise their game.

There were two things I hoped to achieve.  First, to help them to do their best in readiness for their exams.  Second, to learn some lessons for life about self-belief and self-confidence.  With these ideas in mind I was inspired by the work of a number of colleagues who had been investigating the application of Growth Mindset thinking to their teaching, and decided to look further into this aspect of education.

Growth Mindset

‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed is a book I would encourage everyone to read.  Taken together with the work of Carol Dweck on ‘Mindset’, they  present an argument for the idea that our potential as learners is not predetermined but open to development given the right environment, resources and above all, a ‘growth mindset’.   That is,  being open to the belief that ‘purposeful effort’ is what brings you success in learning.  As teachers, it is our job to cultivate this attitude in our pupils and provide the learning resources, experiences and environment that allow pupils to discover their potential.  This then would be my focus.

The ‘Growth Mindset Pocketbook’ by Barry Hymer and Mike Gershon provided a useful tool for reflecting upon Carol Dweck’s research in a school context and identifying strategies that might be used in the classroom.  Looking at a variety of other resources (see ‘Further resources’ below), including the work of a number schools which have introduced Growth Mindset thinking to staff and pupils, I decided to adopt two approaches to work on with my class.

Firstly,  to focus on ‘targeted effort’ (Hymer and Gershon, pages 43-58).  My intention was to try and shift pupils’ interest away from focusing on the grades or marks they were (or were not) achieving and instead focus attention on the effort they were making in their work.

Secondly, to focus on trying to develop a greater self-confidence in the boys and the belief that, they were the ‘Masters of their fate’ (from ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley) and by believing in themselves they could have the confidence to face the challenges that lay ahead – in their GCSE course and in life – and succeed even in the face of adversity.

Putting the theory into practice

Focusing on the importance of effort and trying to cultivate a greater sense of self-confidence and self-belief were two mutually supportive aims which I sought to put into practice in the classroom.

Targeting effort

Typically, if you mark a piece of work with a grade or score and a comment, pupils will look to the grade, feel a sense of joy or deflation and read no further.  My aim therefore was to shift the focus away from marking and feedback which concentrated on attainment because this, according to the literature can serve to reinforce fixed mindsets, such as,  ‘I did not succeed therefore I am no good at this subject!’.

So, with the exception of end of module assessments/mock exams, I set out to ensure that all of my formative assessments focused on the pupils’ effort rather than their attainment.  To ensure this was meaningful, it still needed to embrace best practice by being specific in identifying where in their work I could recognize and acknowledge effort; and where additional effort would help them to make genuine improvements to their learning when completing DIRT (Directed Improvement and Response Time) work.

yellow sticker

Example of a feedback sticker acknowledging effort

The boys adapted more quickly than I expected to this new approach to marking and quickly stopped asking, ‘What mark did I get?’ or, ‘What grade would I get for this?’.  The greatest challenge for me as a teacher, was in learning to phrase my comments in a way that focused the pupils’ attention on effort, and their ability to improve their work, rather than on comments that were either too vague and general to be of value, or comments which tended to imply an innate ability and therefore fell into the very trap or reinforcing the mindset that,  ‘I have a fixed level of ability which cannot be changed’.

In time, as I developed my vocabulary and ability to articulate my feedback more precisely, the process became more effective.   This applied to both written feedback and to verbal feedback given during the course of lessons.

To reinforce the message that it was their effort that was most worthy of recognition,  I adopted a series of reward stickers to acknowledge a particularly positive or note-worthy effort on the part of each boy.  The stickers were tiny ‘button’ stickers of a child like style  with pictures of footballs and butterflies, trophies and flowers, along with a ‘great effort’ or ‘well done’  type statement.  Initial laughter soon passed and many of the boys became quietly keen to see whether they had earned a new sticker when their books were handed back to them.

Effort stickers

Pupil’s book with effort stickers

We started counting the stickers earned and every time a boy gained five stickers I sent a praise postcard home acknowledging ‘sustained effort’ over a period of time.  This reinforced the message that it was effort that deserved praise and recognition.   For many of the boys this brought them praise and recognition in a way that attainment alone was unlikely to bring and the boys (and parents) were proud of this recognition.  While not admitting openly to liking the effort stickers, it was after one boy asked what would happen to his stickers once he started a new exercise book that I decided to add a count of the stickers already earned to the cover of a new exercise book where new stickers would add to the total earned across the year.  In such small ways self-esteem is boosted.

In going forward, I do believe that it is important for me as a teacher to continue to cultivate and practice the use of a vocabulary with pupils that emphasizes the importance of effort and the virtue of recognizing that, it is only with effort that we can truly improve ourselves as learners.

Building self-confidence

In a groups of boys, many of whom did not have high self-esteem and who had experienced knocks and disappointments when their progress was measured against target grades, I felt it was important to try and build a ‘can-do’ attitude which promoted the virtues of effort, resilience, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, coping with disappointment and believing that everybody can achieve more in life if they make a focused and sustained effort to do so.

I felt it was important to focus this work not exclusively as a rallying cry to, ‘work hard academically so you will pass your exam’ (though this was obviously one motivation for this work), but as an attitude to carry beyond school into all areas of life.

On a practical level I chose to focus on this explicitly in every lesson through our ‘bell-work’ activities (an activity that was waiting for the pupils, ready to engage them from the moment they entered the classroom).

I researched a broad range of motivational or thought-provoking pictures, images, quotations, YouTube clips and posters that were a prompt for a brief discussion and to set the tone at the start of every lesson.

I sought out ideas that I felt would appeal to boys.  Ideas associated with sport, celebrity role models, humour and a variety of activities/pastimes.   As I built a bank of resources for the bell-work activities it became clear that there was a great deal of overlap when focusing on effort, ambition, perseverance and resilience.  I therefore grouped my resources into what became ‘fortnightly themes’ , where we would approach one idea from five different angles, over each timetable cycle.  The effect of this was to reinforce the key message and a pattern emerged where we would begin the fortnight with a film-clip to establish that fortnight’s theme and then develop it in consequent lessons.  This meant investing more time in the first lesson of each fortnightly cycle but I felt that the investment in terms of the cultivation of self-confidence was a worthwhile one.

GM slideMichael Jordan

Example of  bell work slides to prompt discussion 

By the end of the year I developed the resources for 76 lessons which saw us right through to their exams.  By beginning every lesson in the same way the boys became used to the routine and could soon use the vocabulary of, ‘effort, perseverance and resilience’ and explain what it meant.  My hope was that by drip-feeding these messages to them in every lesson, alongside a focus in my feedback and conversations in class on promoting, praising and encouraging the virtue of effort over attainment, that some of the messages would begin to ‘stick’ and influence their approach to work and exam preparation.


In terms of measuring the impact of each initiative it is hard to give a scientific analysis of outcomes.  However, at the end of the course I gave the boys a questionnaire and interviewed them about their experience.

On the whole, at the end of the year a majority of the boys surveyed identified more strongly with statements that suggested a ‘growth-mindset’ attitude.

When asked to recall which messages they could remember from the Bell Work at the start of each lesson they recalled:  “Don’t give up until you succeed”, “Stick at it!”, “Take on the Challenge”, “Persevere!”, “Make the effort”, “If you fail, keep on trying”.

Among the bell work activities that they found most memorable they cited, ‘The Michael Jordan messages not to give up when you experience failure’; and ‘The squirrel one’ (based on a You-tube film of a squirrel successfully overcoming an obstacle course which was accompanied by the story that it had taken the squirrel 6 months to learn to overcome the obstacles that it could eventually tackle in 30 seconds), and the reason –  ‘because it was funny’!

I also asked the boys whether they felt their attitude towards and effort in R.E. had improved across the year and all those asked said, ‘Yes’.  When I probed further to ask which factors had contributed to this improvement they all said that ‘teacher encouragement’ and ‘seeing my work improve during the year’ had been a part of their motivation alongside ‘parental encouragement’ and a desire to ‘get the grades necessary to get onto a course in September’.

Ultimately, the exam results the boys achieved showed a mixed picture of attainment.   Promoting growth-mindset is not a magic bullet and does not turn a ship around in a year!  However, hearing the boys being able to talk about ‘perseverance’, ‘resilience’ and ‘effort’ as the year progressed and seeing a number of them genuinely make their best effort – at least some of the time – in the run up to the exams, encourages me to believe that the effort invested in cultivating a growth-mindset culture in the classroom is worthwhile.

Above all, regardless of exam results, I hope that each of the boys has taken into adult life something of the belief that their potential is not limited and that with perseverance and resilience their efforts to develop their potential in any area of life is both worthwhile and achievable.

Bibliography/Further resources

‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed, published by Fourth Estate (Harper Collins)

‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck, published by Random House Publishing Group

‘Growth Mindset Pocketbook’ by Barry Hymer and Mike Gershon, published by Teachers’ Pocketbooks – a summary of ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed – Summary of Carol Dweck’s Theory of Motivation by Geoff Petty – A You Tube summary of Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’ Carol Dweck – TED talks – John Tomsett, Headteacher Huntington School on introducing a Growth Mindset to his school – Chris Hildrew, Chew Valley School on introducing Growth Mindset to his school – You Tube film explaining Growth mindset in simple terms for young people – ‘Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset’ -A You Tube animation explaining the implications of different mindsets through the behaviour of two young people

‘Developing a Growth Mndset in your child’, Great Torrington School parents’ page: – The Growth Mindset Collection – a collection of articles about Growth Mindset compiled by Alex Quigley

Featured image: ‘Bicycling, bicycle, uphill’ by Perlinator on Pixabay.  Licensed under CCO Creative Commons



Researching the effects of SAM learning on class work and exam preparation in English at Key Stage 4

An Action Research project by Katie Sutherland (English)


To research the effects of SAM learning to monitor whether setting these tasks for homework can have a positive effect on class work and exam preparation at KS4.

From their promotional information comes the following statement:

“With more activities across more subjects and a wider range of exam boards than any other online service, SAM Learning is the most effective online homework and exam-preparation service for secondary schools in the UK today.”

This action research project was used to challenge prior assumptions with a specific focus on Year 10 pupils.

The prior assumptions based upon 16 years in secondary education were:

  • Year 10 pupils would engage more with e-learning homework tasks than generic reading and writing tasks
  • Boys completion of e-learning homework would be at least equivalent to girls, if not greater
  • There would be clear evidence in mock exam results that pupils had benefitted from e-learning homework

In order to broaden the breadth of study, reading was undertaken of previous research on the effectiveness of using online learning resources to improve progress. A convincing statistic was found and supported the objective of this action research project: ‘The impact of on-line revision on GCSE results’ by Karen Osborne, SAM Learning blog, 2005. The reference to boosting a ‘school’s GCSE results by over 30 per cent’ was an incentive to trial and monitor this method of setting homework and specifically the statement that, ‘improvements were more significant for boys’ as this remains a keen area of interest within my own practice as an English teacher.

online learning boosts school’s GCSE results by over 30 per cent. Improvements were more significant for boys, suggesting that online learning is an effective tool to help engage adolescent boys with their learning.’ (; 2005)


The process for this action research project included:

  1. Set specific exam related tasks from Sam Learning for Year 10 pupils
  2. Monitor and analyse the data provided in response to these tasks
  3. Evaluate any impact on class work and mock exam results
  4. Pupil voice survey on the use of Sam Learning as a homework tool
  5. Conclusions
  6. Next steps

1.  Set specific exam related tasks from Sam Learning for Year 10 pupils.

28 Year 10 pupils of mixed ability were set 48 tasks over a 6 week period all related to English Paper 1.

35% of tasks were cloze activities therefore allowing the least able pupils to achieve success by placing the correct words/ phrases into responses

35% of tasks required a more developed response and would challenge all pupils to type a response of between 30 and 50 words

30% of tasks required a developed response were pupils would have to write in more depth and write about 100-150 words

2. Monitor and analyse the data provided in response to the homework tasks set.

% of tasks completed by pupils 0-14% 15-29% 30-49% 50-69% 70-89% 90-100%
Number of pupils 5 6 6 4 0 3

Figure 1. Completion rate of all homework tasks set on SAM learning

The rationale of this division of tasks was to encourage pupils of all ability to complete the maximum amount of homework tasks to consolidate learning. Sam Learning offers tasks that are multiple choice, clozed activities that can help with progress of less able pupils. However, it also has tasks that require a more developed response and then the more challenging tasks that require a detailed response that demonstrate a breadth of understanding by pupils and would consolidate learning in preparation for exam responses.

K Sutherland - fig 2

Figure 2. Breakdown of the relative completion rate of tasks by gender in relation to the overall completion rate of tasks set (see figure 1)

Evidence suggests:

  • Girls have completed significantly more homework than boys
  • A proportion of girls were willing to complete all tasks set
  • The maximum that a boy completed was 45% of tasks set

This evidence contradicted initial pre-conceptions that boys would complete more homework using technology and online learning tasks than girls. However, disappointingly, the maximum amount of homework tasks that a boy completed was 45% even though boys had equivalent target grades to their female peers. This did not fit with the expected results and made me reflect on whether or not the claims that completing online learning tasks ‘boosted grades by up to 30 percent’ were either gender specific or possibly even subject specific and perhaps English was not a subject that had benefitted from these results.

3. Evaluate any impact on class work and mock exam results

All of the learning tasks set were focused on AQA English Paper 1 and it was hoped that the completion of online learning tasks would support progress and be evidenced in mock examination results.

Pupil Time spent


Position in class mock exam Base level
Pupil 1 43.5 1 5a
Pupil 2 19.5 2 5c
Pupil 3 30.52 3 5b
Pupil 4 (EAL) 43.35 4 4c
Pupil 5 11.05 5 5c
Pupil 6 7.00 6 5a
Pupil 7 8.35 7 5b
Pupil 8 4.3 8 4a
Pupil 9 (EAL) 10.35 9 4c
Pupil 10 23.33 10 4a
Pupil 11 5.55 11 5b
Pupil 12 1.10 12 5c
Pupil 13 16.3 13 4c
Pupil 14 8.00 14 4b
Pupil 15 35.2 15 4b
Pupil 16 14.3 16 4b
Pupil 17 3.25 17 3a
Pupil 18 (SEND) 3.5 18 3b
Pupil 19 (EAL) 35.2 19 3a
Pupil 20 (EAL) 17.45 20 4c
Pupil 21 2.45 21 4a
Pupil 22 .25 22 4a
Pupil 23 (SEND) .2 23 4c
Pupil 24 (SEND) 17.5 24 2c

Figure 3. A comparison of time spent on SAM learning task in relation to ranked position in a mock exam and student base level data.

Notable observations:

Pupil 4 has spent a significant amount of time completing homework and achieved 4th position in class.

Yet, pupil 19 has also completed a significant amount of homework and achieved 19th place.

Their base level was just one sub-level difference.

Pupil 10 has spent a significant amount of time completing homework and achieved 10th position in class.

Whereas Pupil 11 has a higher base level but has not completed nearly as much homework and is in 11th position.

4. Pupil Voice Survey

Pupil voice Survey        
Questions Girls Yes Boys Yes Girls No Boys No
Do you prefer homework tasks set on the computer? 10 11 3 0
Do you complete more homework if you can use the computer? 8 9 5 2
Are you satisfied with the amount of homework tasks that you have completed? 6 5 5 7
Would it help you to complete more tasks if you had a set amount to complete per week? 7 7 4 5
Do you think that SAM Learning has had a positive impact on your class work or mock? 8 5 3 7
Would you have completed more tasks if you could do this in an after school revision session? 4 10 7 3
Were your parents/ carers aware of your e-learning tasks? 5 2 6 9

5. Conclusions

  • Few pupils completed all e-learning homework tasks
  • The majority of girls completed more homework tasks than boys
  • One of the most able pupils from baseline data completed the most homework and achieved first position in the mock exam
  • Some of the least able pupils completed the least e-learning homework tasks
  • Boys were not as engaged when completing the extended responses
  • Most boys were honest in their response that they would probably complete more e-learning tasks if given time in school to revise.

Surprisingly, the data collected thus far has not supported the claims that ‘improvements were more significant for boys’. I can understand that if you are starting at a point of 0% completion of homework then there may be more significant improvements but my experience had been that it was difficult to gender stereotype as it really depended on the pupils who completed the work, rather than their gender. I was disappointed with the lack of extended responses from all pupils and with the boys in particular but I will consider their responses from the pupil voice survey when setting future homework.

6. Next steps

  • Set short manageable tasks on a fortnightly basis for pupils
  • Differentiate tasks for learners
  • Monitor pupils completion of tasks every fortnight
  • Offer lunch time / after school revision sessions (particularly for boys)
  • Group call parents with homework information
  • Reward all pupils who complete 75% or more of tasks

Further research would be beneficial whilst adapting my practice to include the ‘next steps’. I would hope that more manageable tasks, rewards and opportunities during the school day to complete learning will boost the quality and quantity of homework completed. Also, parental support via group call will be effective in ensuring completion of homework.

Featured image: ‘boy computer’ by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 Public Domain


An action research project by Kevin Magner (R.E.)


To develop a range of strategies to engage a group of Year 10 boys with lower level literacy in learning; to help build confidence in their own ability; a willingness to engage in written work and to help them achieve their target grades.


Examination of GCSE Religious Studies is based on the completion of two written exam papers. Pupils need to be able to express their learning in the appropriate written format for the exam.

Literacy is a skill for life and the ability to communicate effectively in both the written and spoken word is a basic skill for daily life and for employability.


The focus for this action research project has been my Year 10 GCSE RE group. The group is made up 13 boys, many of whom have lower level literacy skills.  The boys are taught together as part of a faculty initiative to teach pupils in single-sex groups.  The boys have a wide range of learning needs including six who are Pupil Premium, six have SEND needs (two being statemented), seven have dyslexic tendencies, two have ADHD and there are a mixture of emotional and behavioural issues also present in the group.

A significant proportion of the boys have relatively low self-esteem which manifests itself in many cases as a reluctance to participate in academic work. Behavioural and emotional needs mean they often find it difficult to work cooperatively.

The target grades for this group range from minimum target grades of C-F and challenge target grades of C-E.

During the course of the year it has been confirmed that eight of the boys will receive additional support in their final exams, including seven who will have the support of a scribe and reader. While these pupils will not have to physically write in their exam they will still have to know and explain verbally how they want their answers to be written.

Background Reading and Research

Background Reading

Historically, boys in general have been less academically successful than girls in Religious Education as they have been in most literacy based subjects.

“The one area of the curriculum where boys do tend to underachieve is English” (pg ii3)

Initially, in my research I looked for evidence of practical strategies to engage boys in learning. The document, ‘Me Read, No Way’ – A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills, produced by the Ontario Ministry for Education (2004)1 and which draws on findings from OFSTED, provided some very helpful strategies based around the structure and delivery of lessons:

Boys respond best when:

  • work is assigned in bite-sized, digestible pieces and is time-limited;
  • lessons are broken down into a variety of activities that include more research, or the use of information technology; “active” learning opportunities, such as drama, investigation,
  • the work seems relevant to them – that is, when it has a purpose they can understand;
  • lessons are delivered in a brisk, well-paced format, with an obvious direction, so that they can tell that progress is occurring;
  • the work includes an element of competition and/or involves short-term goals;
  • time is allowed for review and reflection following the lesson or assignment;
  • an analysis of the “concrete” aspects of a text precedes an analysis of one’s emotional response to it;
  • they receive regular, positive feedback.

(Wilson, 2003, p. 123) (pg161)

Other guidance focused on specific teaching strategies with reference to the development of written literacy:

“Some strategies for establishing the link between reading and writing:

  • Explicitly discuss models of good writing in detail, pointing out elements such as sentence structure, paragraphing, and vocabulary, so that students become aware of the choices that the writer has made.
  • Maintain a balance between the development of skills such as spelling and grammar and the exploration of content, meaning, and effect” (pg 141)

“Graphic organizers and other visual tools can be a useful means of demonstrating the relationships between things, both spatially and conceptually. They can be used in literacy activities in ways that may help “let boys in on the secret”.” (pg201)

Seeing a teacher model the use of writing frames or templates and using writing frames themselves helped students understand narrative structure.

  • Breaking text down to its skeletal outline helped students understand how writers develop a story
  • Writing frames were most useful to students of average ability, but they also helped lower-achieving students, especially when those students used the frames in groups, with a teacher’s guidance.
  • Writing frames built structure into the narrative writing task, improving boys’ writing performance.” (pg211)

However, it quickly became evident as the year progressed with the class that issues of self-esteem, motivation and social interaction were as much of a barrier to engaging the boys in my class as their practical skills. Low self-esteem can often become embedded in academic behaviours which can then be reinforced by gender stereotypes.

As the DFCS (Department for Children, Schools and Family) document, ‘Gender issues in school: What works to improve achievement of boys and girls’ (2004)2 states:

“The peer group is of central importance in reinforcing gender stereotypes. For instance, given the choice, pupils usually sit in same gender groups and both primary and secondary pupils ‘police’ the gendered behaviour of their peers, and punish failure to conform to traditional gender norms.”(pgiii2)

It soon became apparent to me that in my all male class a number of negative stereotypes were well established amongst the boys concerning their attitude to learning in general and to R.E. in particular. Working hard, or being seen to work hard, was not ‘cool’ and R.E. was not perceived to be of relevance to their current or future lives.

This exacerbates the social challenges the pupils have to overcome in terms of literacy development.

Boys designated “poor readers” are more likely to react against their perceived low

status in class than girls working in the same group. In an effort to bolster their standing with their peers this group of boys may avoid spending much time on a task they find difficult (pgvii2)

This effect is multiplied, even in a single gender class, given the ‘practice’ the boys have had in trying to avoid work they find difficult throughout their education.

There are therefore academic, personal and social factors that all combine to act as hurdles in the race to develop the literacy skills necessary to enable the boys to successfully reach the finishing line of their GCSE exams. This acutely highlights the tension for any teacher, between the desire to develop literacy skills for life against the all too real deadline of an exam date.

Visit to a primary school

Discussion with a colleague from a primary teaching background highlighted the idea that many of the boys may have struggled or indeed missed key steps in the development of their literacy skills while in primary education. As a result they have struggled to build more advanced skills over these gaps.  Similarly, a loss of confidence and a consequent lack of self-esteem may have resulted in their being reluctant to undertake, or even trying to avoid written tasks which expose their limitations – this being most obvious when it comes to public examinations!

I undertook a visit to a primary school which had undertaken a school-wide writing project to explore strategies, particularly those relating to boys who are struggling to develop their literacy, which I hoped would help me to find strategies which might be effective with my class.

Among the strategies used by the primary school were the following, which fall into three broad categories:

  1.  Practical support
  • Teachers model the writing process using pupils’ ideas. This is then used to model the ‘Review, Edit, Improve’ process
  • The ‘Think, Say, Write’ process is used to allow pupils to express their ideas using verbal skills in which most pupils are stronger, before the more challenging task of capturing them in writing
  • Pupils are supported in the drafting and editing of written answers through the use of mini-whiteboards so that work is improved before it is written in ‘best’
  • Laminated ‘placemats’ which include key words, vocabulary, grammatical forms and success criteria are used to provide individual pupils with immediate support and guidance on specific tasks/activities
  • Keyboards and voice recorders are used to support pupils who find the motor skills involved in writing difficult thus providing them with the chance to produce ‘written’ work they can be proud of
  • Written work is ‘reverse engineered’ by starting with a finished piece of writing and then working backwards to explore and understand how that answer was produced thus modelling the process that build towards successful written work in small steps

2. Social strategies to build self-esteem

  • Talk to small groups of pupils directly about the difficulties they are facing in their literacy and ask them what support or help they want, thus showing that they are not alone and that the teacher intends to support them
  • Share pupils’ best work with an appropriate audience (another teacher, the Head teacher, the rest of the class, display, a younger class, a visitor, sent home to parents) to celebrate success and foster self-esteem
  • Use practical/engaging activities (build…, make…, do…) as a stimulus for consequent written work
  • Use laminated speech bubbles with pupils’ names and board markers during lessons to capture and display good ideas from pupils, thus providing recognition and a sense of immediate success with aspects of a written task to build self-esteem and retain good ideas for later use

3. Whole-school principles and strategies to support literacy

  • Develop a culture which recognises the need for ‘practice, practice, practice’ in written work
  • Establish the expectation that every pupil will be writing
  • Ensure that all pupils learn and practise the ‘review, edit, improve’ cycle in their written work
  • Provide support at ‘the point of learning’ (placing an emphasis on helping pupils to succeed rather than waiting for failure and then providing remedial support)
  • Have clear expectations regarding legibility and spelling to ensure pupils do not try to mask their needs through poor handwriting
  • Have a regular (termly, weekly, module) focus on an aspect of literacy (spelling, handwriting, punctuation)


Strategies to engage interest

This was the first approach I tried at the beginning of the year as I sought to make lessons both stimulating and engaging for the boys. As far as possible I broke the lessons into small chunks and sought to use a wider variety of activities than those that were already built into the faculty scheme of work.  I did this to shift the emphasis of the lessons away from written activities and to encourage greater participation.  Increasing the emphasis on visual resources (including picture based activities and the use of short film clips) did stimulate interest and as the year has progressed, become a springboard for discussion which the boys enter into more freely than written tasks.

The use of IT based resources which I thought would appeal to boys has been of mixed benefit. The use of ‘Plickers’ (a discussion/quiz based activity) based on the principle of immediate feedback using QR coded cards proved ineffective for this group as the practicality of using the technology (the ability of an I-pad to read a set of QR codes held up by pupils in a single camera shot) led to frustration amongst the pupils.  The use of ‘Kahoot’ quizzes using mobile phones was more successful in engaging interest but was soon found to be open to abuse as some of the boys used the ‘give yourself a name’ function to use words which provoked a negative response from other pupils.  A creative use of the resource I had not foreseen – intelligence but employed in the wrong direction!

Other successful strategies have included an increased focus on vocabulary based activities which reinforce the learning of the specific terms required for the exam. This has included the development of both paper and Power point resources which link vocabulary to images and involve pairing, matching and odd-one-out type activities.  These have served both to introduce and to revise key words, with repetition of the vocabulary through a variety of activities – a fundamental principle underpinning lessons.  This has also resulted in the production of resources which the Teaching Assistant linked to the class can use when working one-to-one with key pupils.  These vocabulary games have been extended to include:

‘Chopped Words’ (take a set of key words – chop up and mix the words like the pieces of a jigsaw – pupils have to recreate the key words e.g.   IST   IAN  CHR  ITY  becomes CHRISTIANITY)

‘Scrabble’ (provide scrabble tiles of the letters of a key word. Pupils have to find as many words as they can from the tiles with a bonus for the key word using all tiles)

‘20 Questions’ / ‘Guess the password’ (pupils are given the opportunity to ask questions which can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to ask their fellow pupils, to help them identify a key word which has been shared with the rest of the class)

‘Hangman’ (the traditional game using key vocabulary) – the boys particularly enjoyed this game, especially when it was played by them against the teacher!

‘Here’s the answer, what’s the question?’ (pupils have to identify the key word from its definition or a series of statements about it)

These, along with other activities have promoted familiarity with key words and an opportunity to practise the correct spelling at the same time.

An increased emphasis on discussion rather than Q&A tasks or note-taking has also helped increase engagement in lessons. Any discussion that includes personal anecdote or experience from teacher or pupils stimulates interest further.  This has been a particularly useful way of engaging the boys’ natural curiosity when discussing ‘big issues’ such as the existence of God, the morality of abortion and euthanasia or the existence of the paranormal – but is a greater challenge when discussing ‘drier’ areas of the curriculum.  When used together with skilled questioning techniques this has provided an effective way to explore an issue without reliance on a written text.

Developing good behaviour and promoting self-esteem

By far the biggest obstacle to engagement was the behaviour of pupils, much of which I believe is an expression of their low self-esteem. Many boys came to the class bringing a reputation or set of behaviours which they sought to maintain in the presence of their peers.  Some had a history of not getting along together which coloured all of their interactions.  Some are easily wound up and can be provoked at the slightest instance.

The consequence of this was that class management was a priority from the start of the year. It also meant that a number of cooperative learning strategies were not practical.  In consequence I focused on trying to remain positive in outlook, to be consistent with the class and to be optimistic in my expectations of the boys.

To move class management onto a positive footing I introduced two reward initiatives; reward stickers and a good behaviour report for the class.

The reward stickers are simply small praise stickers which are stuck on the cover of a pupil’s book in recognition of a positive effort, answer, contribution or achievement either in the lesson or in their written work. It is easy to use these either for a specific focus as required or for general recognition.  No specific attention is drawn to their use but pupils do take an interest in the number of stickers they have collected and consequently these are counted and the total transferred as they move into a new exercise book.  A number of the boys do take pride in the growing number of stickers and they do promote a sense of achievement and self-esteem.

To address common concerns regarding behaviour I introduced a Good Behaviour Report for the class. At the end of each lesson boys could gain a point in any, or all of five categories of behaviour I identified as those that would most benefit the overall performance of the class i.e. settling to work quickly, completing tasks, asking/answering questions, behaving well.  The foci were always positive and reward gained for achieving each foci rather than a negative consequence for failing to meet it.  Points were tallied and shared with the class across a two week timetable cycle and then rewards given in line with the school’s rewards system.  I ran this over two terms until I felt it had served its purpose of establishing expectations.

One strategy that was a chance discovery was the use of personal behaviour reports. Initially used to focus one of the boys with ADHD who is very easily distracted but who values positive feedback given to his mother.   This was a simplified paper version of the class behaviour report and was based on the idea that I would give his mum a phone call to acknowledge good behaviour if he had a series of successful lessons.  This report was then requested by another boy to help him to focus.  I continued to use these reports for the remainder of the year for those pupils.

Overall, I have found that the boys respond best to initiatives that are positive in nature, immediate in their feedback and tangible in their reward. A sticker given today with praise and either a call home or a positive referral, is more likely to have an impact than the promise of a greater reward in two weeks’ time.

Perhaps the most important approach I have tried to adopt has been to try and build positive relationships with the boys together with conveying an unfailing optimism in their ability to achieve academic success. This is undoubtedly a long-term strategy but a number of conversations with individual boys show that many need an awful lot of reassurance that their efforts are worthwhile and when they do succeed, they hold onto the successes they have achieved, however small or far apart they might be.

Developing writing skills

The principal reason for engaging the boys in learning was to develop their literacy skills to enable them to achieve a GCSE exam grade. With this in mind it has been important to maintain a clear focus on working towards the exam in every lesson.

Underlying this is what is referred to as ‘The Plan’ – a simple formula for framing exam answers to ensure that pupils access all of the marks available in each part of a question. A copy of this is glued into the back of each exercise book and folds out to provide an instant guide for pupils in lessons.  This is supported by the systematic way in which the format of lessons works its way around the four elements of a full GCSE question.   In almost every lesson we use our learning to address one of these four elements, giving their learning real significance.

Writing frames are used to help pupils to collect and record relevant learning as we work through each topic. These can be differentiated to support the needs of different learners, especially those with the greatest literacy needs.  Writing frames also help to ensure that as the course progresses pupils develop an orderly set of work in their books to support later revision.

Blank writing frames are also available for each part of an exam question. These are based on the same format as the exam paper they will sit at the end of the year and provide practise in applying ‘The Plan’ to the exam paper.  With minor differentiation in the form of sentence starters, they help establish the correct vocabulary for the exam and the principle of paragraphing longer answers – a skill many of the boys have yet to master.

Following my visit to a Primary School, I have increasingly used ‘Teacher Writing’ to model the writing process for the whole class using individual pupil’s ideas. This has allowed me to demonstrate how answers might be worded and edited to ensure that they meet the requirements of the exam.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how good the pupils often were in this exercise, especially in terms of correcting spelling and punctuation as well as in the need to explain points fully for the examiner.  However, while most of the boys could record such answers from the board there remains a reluctance to complete extended answers independently.

‘Teacher Writing’ also supports the process of ‘Think, say, write’, encouraging pupils to verbalise and rehearse an answer, with teacher input, before committing it to writing.


Overall, I feel that we have made some progress as a class. The pupils do understand the structure of exam answers and what is required to answer them.  They have become familiar with a wide range of key vocabulary though they are not always confident in its use.  The boys can engage in discussion and express opinions verbally and they have demonstrated the ability to frame exam answers when supported by ‘Teacher Writing’.

Behaviour continues to vary from lesson to lesson but we have had more productive lessons as the year has progressed. A clear format for lessons has been established and pupils understand the routines that shape lessons.

In the mock exams at the end of Year 10 results were still below target; however it was encouraging to hear from scribes that pupils did understand the structure of exam answers and tried to frame their answers accordingly. The ‘Teacher Writing’ activities had also helped pupils with the weakest written skills to make best use of their scribes by enabling them to try and put answers into the format that had been practised in lessons.


This is a challenging class to teach on many levels but with the challenge comes reward that is often measured in the small steps the boys have taken in their academic work or sometimes in those precious moments when ‘a penny drops’ or a pupil wants to stay a few moments beyond the lesson to make a point or ask a question. However, it has also been a rewarding process professionally if only in making me review, refine and re-think every lesson that I teach them.

On a broader level I have learnt a number of important lessons as a teacher:

  • Allow time to embed practice, even when it doesn’t seem to be working at first. Pupils like routine and clear expectations. If you have core behaviours or skills to teach you must stick with them even if you need to vary the way in which they are delivered.
  • Develop teaching strategies to meet the individual needs of your pupils. It is important to start from where the pupils are at academically and not simply expect them to fit the mould set for the majority of pupils. This requires patience, reflection and differentiation. Such differentiation can often be subtle and simple in practice.
  • It is important to build self-esteem at every turn. Pupils with low self-esteem take an awful lot of building up and their confidence can be very easily knocked. This takes a conscious and planned effort to maximise the opportunities to celebrate success and consistently reinforce, in the pupils’ eyes, your belief in their potential, where they may lack it themselves.
  • Identify your priorities for the course/class and stick to them. Even when you are not successful, you must be prepared re-iterate and re-define your priorities until they are achieved.
  • Develop routines and build expectations of how pupils will behave or learn. In time pupils come to accept and often rely on these routines, and will then hopefully, rise to these expectations.
  • Keep it simple. In developing new teaching strategies look for simple activities that vary and enhance your repertoire but are not overly complicated or onerous in terms of their planning and preparation. They must also be clearly focused on clear teaching points. Once you have found a strategy that works stick with it but be creative in the way you present and use it.
  • Time invested in resources or strategies that can be re-used is time better spent than investing hours in elaborate activities that have limited use.
  • Be persistent. Teaching a group of Year 10 boys with such a broad range of needs has been challenging. I have often left lessons frustrated, angry or doubted my own ability to teach but with patience and persistence I have learnt more about myself as a teacher and come to recognise the even greater challenges some of these pupils face both academically and in their future lives.

Next Steps

  • Continue to maintain or raise expectations the boys have of themselves academically and socially
  • Continue to work on using and developing the strategies that have proved effective so far
  • Work to develop greater resilience in pupils when faced by challenge or failure
  • Remain optimistic about the benefits to pupils of making small steps in their learning
  • Seek to establish a culture in which pupils are willing to write full exam format answers independently


  1. ‘Me Read, No Way’ – A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2004)

  1. ‘Gender issues in school: What works to improve achievement of boys and girls’

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009)

3. ‘Using the National Healthy School Standard to raise boys’ achievement’, Gary Wilson  Department for Education and Skills, UK. (2003)

Further reading:

Improving Boys’ Literacy

Improving literacy in secondary schools: a shared responsibility – OFSTED

Featured image: Texting boy by Fangirl on Pixabay (original image) licensed by CC0 Public Domain










Developing strategies to promote the progress of boys with lower level literacy

An Action Research project by Kate Rolfe (Geography)


To attempt to develop a range of strategies that can be utilised in lessons to help promote the progress of boys with lower level literacy.


The English Baccalaureate is a school performance measure introduced in 2010 that grades schools on the basis of how many pupils get a grade C or above in the core academic subjects at KS4 (Maths, English, Science, MFL and History or Geography). Option choices at Key Stage 4 have always been flexible in the sense that pupils are offered a variety of pathways and Ebacc subjects have always been promoted at the school.  However, the introduction of the Progress 8 Measure now means that all pupils must opt for at least one of the remaining core subjects outside of the compulsory English, Maths and Science (DfE, 2014). As such, the number of pupils opting for these subjects has increased which has impacted upon the profile of the pupils with a greater range of abilities choosing them at GCSE level. With the government’s commitment to making GCSE testing more rigorous it is important that such academic subjects are accessible to all. This is particularly true for Humanities and MFL subjects where the DfE (2016) have announced the intention that all pupils will take Ebacc subjects by 2020. For the Humanities faculty, this will mean that every pupil in the school will need to opt for either History or Geography and so a key area of focus over the coming years is to make these subjects accessible for pupils of all abilities. The key barriers to success in these subjects (as perceived by the faculty) are the retention of information in two content heavy subjects and proficiency in reading and writing. It is the latter which underpins the aims and objectives of this piece of action research.


The focus of this action research is to attempt to overcome the barriers to learning for pupils posed by lower level literacy skills in academic subjects such as Geography. The group I will be focusing on is my Year 10 Geography group, in particular two pupils who are listed as SEN for low level literacy. These pupils are both entitled to a reader, scribe and extra time for their examinations and have both admitted that they would not have picked any of the Ebacc subjects outside of English, Maths and Science if they had an open choice due to the fact that “they are subjects with loads of writing”. Anecdotally, this could account for the fact that these pupils are the first I have taught in Geography who require this level of support in literacy as in the past, before the changes described above, it has been possible for pupils to avoid opting for subjects which involve ‘loads of writing’.  As discussed above, the avoidance of more academic subjects is no longer an option for these pupils and as this is the first year I will be teaching pupils who require extra support in the exams, I will need to reconsider my teaching methods to account for this.

Background Reading

Nationally and internationally there is a significant difference between the achievement of boys and girls attaining their expected reading age, where girls outperform boys at all levels and this gap increases with age. This difference is not due to genetic differences between the genders but rather social and cultural norms surrounding reading at home, role models, gender identity etc. (National Literacy Trust, 2012). With no national strategy for literacy, intervention takes place at a school based level and at times, especially in secondary schools, the responsibility for literacy tends to fall to the English faculty. However, the ability to read, write and express opinion is important in all subjects and a vital skill for pupil’s once they leave school. As such, the responsibility to develop literacy falls to all teachers in all subjects. Despite the fact that in their final exams the two pupils on which this study is based will have the questions read to them and their answers written for them, the importance of these skills should not be overlooked in a subject that can provide real world examples of the use of these skills. In addition, as a classroom teacher, it is impossible for me to provide the same level of support the boys will receive in the exam during lessons. As such, in order for the boys to become more independent in their learning and the assessment of this, the development of their literacy skills is vital even if they will not be tested in the same way as other pupils during exams.

While carrying out research for this project, it became apparent that much of the UK literature surrounding literacy focuses upon the development of literacy skills for early years children and for pupils for which English is an additional language. As such, the key document used as a basis for this action research was produced by the Canadian government called “Me read? No Way! A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills” (2004). This guide provided a review of literature which highlighted key trends in boys reading and writing skills as well as suggestions as to how this could be approached in lessons. Although this was primarily related to English and literacy lessons, key findings I found applicable were:

  • There are misconceptions that boys do not like to read when in fact it is more likely that boys do not like the reading what is being presented.
  • Boys do not cope with vague instructions and long explanations so work needs to be highly structured.
  • Boys need a structure to help them gather information from what they are reading.
  • Boys prefer writing frames which can be as simple as asking pupils to note down the points that they need to include.
  • Giving pupils time to talk through their thoughts and answers to consolidate their ideas before they commit them to paper.
  • Boys prefer to complete tasks where the work seems relevant to them and has a purpose that they can understand
  • Boys prefer work that includes an element of competition and/or involves short term goals.
  • Many boys are frustrated by non-specific terms such as “discuss”, “account for” and “explain” and so will need to be taught what they mean and have them broken down for them.
  • Work by Steve Biddulph also suggests that boys learn through teachers and not subjects whereas girls are able to connect directly with subjects. This suggests that boys can only connect with a subject via a teacher. This places emphasis on the relationships between teachers and the boys in their class as the need for boys in their puberty years to believe that a teacher cares for them as a person is paramount before they will allow their teacher to impart knowledge or skills to them (Pickup, 2001)

The latter point regarding relationships in relation to a boy’s learning is reinforced by Maslow’s hierarchy of school needs where every stage above physiological is the responsibility of the teacher within the classroom in order for the pupil to reach the stage where they are available to learn.


Over time, the following strategies were trialled, adapted and utilised in order to attempt to meet the objectives set out in this project:

1. Grasping pupils’ needs

Prior to starting any intervention with targeted students I felt it important to gauge pupils’ understanding of Geography and their individual needs. Too often differentiation for lower ability pupils involves generic writing frames or text which is reduced to such a level that higher order thinking skills are lost altogether. Although this is the appropriate step for some pupils I do not want to assume it is the case for those on whom I am focusing. As such I took advantage of the presence of a PGCE student taking my lessons from October to December and used this time to work 1:1 with pupils to better understand their needs.

2. Primary School Visit

As the literacy levels of the pupils in question have a greater correlation with the skills being developed in primary schools, I used INSET time to visit a Year 6 class at a local primary school.

3. Improve use of key vocabulary

A key barrier to learning for pupils with low level literacy in Geography is the sheer volume of key words which to pupils, often have an abstract meaning. Population pyramids (which are not always triangular in shape), the Demographic Transition Model and erosional processes such as hydraulic action are not always accessible to our most able readers, let alone those who struggle. In the past I have perhaps been guilty of simplifying these key words too much with pupils with lower level literacy and consequently pupils struggle when faced with them in exam questions or during independent revision. As such, I have focused on using the words with pupils in lessons through the development of glossaries, using dictionaries and knowledge tests based on key word definitions.

4. Use of discussion and opinion

Use of discussion, especially with boys has been highlighted in the literature as a strategy to help them engage with writing. This was achieved through planning lessons with deliberate discussion time with a clear focus. A clear focus is vital in order to ensure discussions are purposeful and aid learning. Examples of this include asking pupils their opinion as a way into a topic, planning answers as a group and talking through an answer with the teacher before committing pen to paper.

5. Competition

A second strategy recommended in a variety of literature is the element of competition appealing to boys. This was implemented in lessons through the use of card sorts, games and debates.

6. Building relationships

As discussed previously, boys tend to learn through their teachers rather than content and as such developing relationships with pupils is vital. These strategies are arguably the most difficult as they need to be flexible and adaptable to a variety of moods, situations and individuals. In order to approach this I tried to consider situations from an objective point of view and attempt to discover the root cause of some of the behaviours that could undermine a positive relationship. One of the boys for example would constantly shout out the correct answer to questions posed to the class. At the start of the year this may have led to consequences and sanctions which could be a barrier to developing a positive relationship. By looking at the situation from an objective point of view I came to realise that the misbehaviour was not an attempt to ruin the lesson but rather that class discussion was the part of the lesson that the pupil felt able to participate in most and as such “hogged” the questions. This was overcome through a discussion with the pupil that resulted in me giving him a pad of post it notes whereby he would write down a reminder word or sentence for the ideas in his head. I would then make a conscious effort to discuss these with the pupil after the class discussion.

Impact of each action

Grasping pupils’ needs:  The opportunity to work with pupils 1:1 was deemed invaluable in beginning this project and gauging need. It was found that one pupil is extremely demotivated and does not want to study the subject. His literacy skills are weak and he can find it difficult to grasp abstract concepts. However, the other pupil upon which this research is based was found to be very articulate in Geography and could grasp and begin to analyse higher level concepts. As such, it was found that despite both pupils’ needs being identified as lower level literacy the intervention strategies used for them need to differ in some cases.

Primary School Visit:  Observing the strategies used with Year 6’s was an eye-opening experience especially when considering the expectations that we have of Year 7s upon arrival at secondary school. The greatest disparity between primary and secondary school in relation to literacy is the amount of time dedicated to a task. Throughout the morning I observed pupils drafting and redrafting a piece of work which was later written up in best during the afternoon. Even pupils who were deemed of lower academic ability produced grammatically accurate pieces of writing to demonstrate their knowledge. The key challenge here is that a large proportion of curriculum time in primary schools is dedicated to literacy and so a ‘practice makes perfect’ approach is more easily adopted. At secondary school, and especially at GCSE this development of literacy skills is not as easily adaptable where content takes priority over skills. This is an area I will need to consider in more depth in the future.

Improve use of key vocabulary: This approach yielded mixed responses depending on the complexity of the topic. When pupils felt confident in the key words being tested it acted as a morale booster. However, if pupils could not remember the words then this could act as a reason to disengage in the lesson. However, this strategy was liked by the class as a whole and I am hoping that the repetition of key words will have longer term benefits.

Use of discussion and opinion: The use of planned discussion in lessons was anecdotally one of the most successful in engaging the boys in learning. The option of giving an opinion gave the boys the perception that there was no right or wrong answer but the justifications they used to support their points were high level in terms of geographical knowledge. Discussing answers first allowed pupils to begin structuring their answers and this was further developed whereby pupils would write all initial ideas onto post it notes which could then be re-arranged in order to plan an answer. Although these strategies did not always transpire into extended writing, it has enabled the pupils to begin to verbalise their ideas which is a skill that will need to develop further as they are both entitled to a scribe in their final exams.

Competition: Overall, the use of competition in lessons received mixed responses and was susceptible to the mood of the pupils. At times they would really engage and actively compete with one another to reach the answer first but in other instances it was perceived as a gimmick. The subject content of the competition also played a large role in the engagement of the activity.

Building relationships: The impact of actively seeking to build positive relationships with pupils in my class has had a positive impact on my relationship with the pupils in this project and across all of my groups. I would like to think that one of my strengths is having a positive relationship with most of the pupils whom I teach and these naturally develop over time. However, actively considering the reasons for potential misbehaviours in my lessons has allowed me to have conversations with pupils that may not have arisen naturally in order to implement strategies to cope with this.


Arguably, the overwhelming conclusion of this project is that there is no solid conclusion when it comes to strategies to engage and promote the progress of low literacy boys. To an extent I had pre-empted this outcome with the inclusion of the words “to attempt to” develop strategies in my original objective. Within my classroom I have witnessed giant leaps forward with the progress of the boys in my class as well as huge steps backwards and this has varied on a term by term, week by week, day by day basis. This can at times be annoying, tiring and extremely frustrating when a strategy that works in one lesson appears to fail the next. The key thing I have learnt is not to give up. Some of the systems I have adopted throughout this project started to show benefit very late on in the term and some have not shown any benefit at all. However, the one thing that is true is that the boys have most definitely noticed the effort that goes into helping them make progress and ultimately that building of relationships is the most important thing.

Next Steps

Despite the progress made with my boys with lower level literacy this year it must be acknowledged that there is still a long way to go if they are to reach their full potential. This will largely focus on attempting to build self-esteem and confidence within the pupils to want to succeed for themselves. The key areas to focus on next year will be:

  • Instilling confidence to write independently
  • Encouraging pupils to attempt tasks even if it results in failure
  • Making better use of readers and scribes in preparation for exams
  • Fostering resilience in order to overcome the fight or flight response to exams

Featured image: ‘Letters’ by geralt on Pixabay. Original image licensed by CC0 Public Domain

Nurturing and Developing Artistic Creativity at KS3

An Action Research project by Matt Hodge (Art & Design)

Aim of the project:

The aim of this project is to develop strategies for developing individual creativity on male pupils at KS3.


  1. Examine where the differences lie between the theoretical art education and actual art education in England.
  2. Investigate the nature of good practice from the perspective of creativity and compare to good practice under the current framework for high schools.
  3. Develop a strategy for increasing creativity in schools within the current framework.


In 1999 John Swift and John Steers wrote A Manifesto for Art In Schools. The paper called for a new form of Art education in our schools that promoted difference, plurality and independence of mind. These desires and thoughts have been echoed by others interested in the study of Art education and justification for the inclusion of Art education in National Curriculum, for example Burgess and Addison (2000) and Siegusmund (1998). Many issues raised in the manifesto have already been addressed, specialist teachers appear at primary level and the previous National Curriculum for Art primarily addressed creativity, confidence and cultural awareness (The National Curriculum, 2007). Whilst Art education may have appeared to move towards a freer model, the reality painted by teaching colleagues is different.  The limiting assessment criteria, that pupils and teachers have to abide by prevents true creativity and relies upon formulaic progression of activities (Hardy, 2002) and evidenced by the current GCSE assessment criteria. In order to achieve good grades, teachers put pupils through a tried and tested formula with minimal room for individuality.


Initially the project was to focus on boys’ progression but engagement in the project through the originally planned extracurricular clubs after school was minimal. The club was attended by a handful of pupils but they soon dropped off. Opening the club to male and female pupils saw numbers briefly increase however these numbers soon tailed off. The open nature of pupils finding things they were interested in may have been too challenging. Pupils would easily find an image they wanted to turn into a piece of Art but struggled to consider technique and methods. This is where pupils needed much tighter instruction.

To adapt the project to produce viable outcomes I adapted my teaching strategies to focus on assessment rather than instruction at KS3, taking the role of ‘facilitator’ rather than front and centre teacher. Initial direction and themes for projects were given to pupils of both sexes but from this point the majority of instruction came through assessment rather than teacher led direction. This allowed pupils to complete work at a pace they were comfortable with, which in some cases, particularly among female pupils, has driven up quality. They still seek guidance and help but this has become much more of a two way conversation about ways progression is possible rather than what do I do now.

Photographs and commentary

Pictures 1,2,3

Outcomes from a project based on Harry Potter Death Eaters. Pupils developed individual ideas in response to a field trip, using generic instructions for what is expected to be seen in a design task. Pupils were required to gather their own resources and develop their own ideas drawing on a number of sources. Pupils were given basic instruction in how to construct the mask but once completed had to develop their own methods for adding details.


Picture 4

Pupils independently chose and studied a variety of Artists before being tasked to appropriate techniques to a portrait of a member of staff.


Pictures 5,6,7

The same generic task assessment sheet was used multiple times to familiarise pupils with the expectations of the assignment. This allowed pupils to best explore their techniques and methods as they knew the framework they would be assessed against in detail. The process allowed pupils to manage their own time and expectations of progress between tasks.



Picture 8, 9, 10

Resources and initial design ideas produced by pupils to inspire their Harry Potter Death Eater masks.


Picture 11

Clear and explicit outcomes requirements allowed the pupil to find a personal hook to maintain their interest. The pupil was able to succeed as they could pick their own topic / theme within the intended outcome.

Next steps

  1. Develop a foundation based curriculum to build initial directed skills in early KS3 covering basic needed skills and techniques.
  2. Develop further independence, confidence and resilience in self-directed study.
  3. Offer pupils a range of starting points for projects (artist or subject based) to allow them to develop their own course of study, fitting assessment criteria into the tasks, not the task into the assessment criteria.


Burgess, L. and Addison, N. (2004, 2nd ed.) Contemporary Art in Schools: Why Bother? in R. Hickman, (Ed.) Art Education 11-18 – Meaning, Purpose and Direction. London: Continuum.

Hardy, T. (2002) AS Level Art: Farewell to the ‘Wow’ Factor? Journal of Art and Design Education. Vol.21 No.2

QCA (2007) The National Curriculum. London: QCA

Siegesmund, R. (1998) Why Do We Teach Art Today? Conceptions of Art Education and Their Justification. Studies in Art Education. Vol.39 No.3.

Swift, J and Steers, J (1999) A Manifesto for Art in Schools. Journal of Art and Design Education. Vol.18 No.1


Engaging Disaffected Learners (3)

An Action Research project by Megan Dunsby

Project overview

Working with two other members of the department (Anna Watkins and Hannah Gale), we established the following aims:

  • To develop our pedagogical understanding of the reasons behind disaffection;
  • To establish and broaden a range of strategies to re-engage disaffected learners;
  • To build resilience and inspire self-confidence.

These give an overview of our foci, and from here we endeavoured to use different strategies to engage disaffected learners. We decided to all concentrate on year 10 students and boys in particular. Having a shared year group meant that we were able to support each other and help each other to develop strategies.

There are a myriad of reasons why students become disaffected, but in the experiences that we had had in our year 10 classrooms we felt that these were the central reasons why:

  • Disaffection hides a literacy weakness;
  • Pressure of year 10 GCSE (especially with current changes);
  • English is compulsory and relevance isn’t obvious to all.

Initial Research

The National Literacy Trust had the following to say on boy’s literacy levels:

  • “Research consistently shows a gender gap in children’s reading. Boys’ attitudes towards reading and writing, the amount of time they spend reading and their achievement in literacy are all poorer than those of girls.”
  • “Unfortunately it is those boys who are least likely to be socially mobile who are often most vulnerable to these triggers. For example, white working-class boys are one of the groups with lowest achievement in literacy”.
  • By GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap [between boys and girls] is 14 percentage points” (National Literacy Trust).

So, why is this gap so big and what can cause boys to become disaffected learners in English in particular? Firstly, the changes to the examination system at GCSE mean that students must sit examinations at the end of Year 11 in which they must recall and apply two years’ worth of learning. This is an overwhelming and stressful prospect for many students, who are immediately disengaged by their own assumption that they will fail at this challenge. This can be a huge cause of disaffection at the beginning of Year 10.

The English curriculum has also become more traditional, favouring more 19th century literature and classic British literature, which means that students are working with challenging texts and unfamiliar language. Some boys in particular find it difficult to understand the purpose of studying these texts, which can provoke disaffection, particularly given that English is a compulsory subject that students have not opted into. Indeed, Caroline Bentley-Davies suggests that a teacher must “signal exactly why you are doing something” (2010, p.165) when improving standards of boys.

In addition, GCSE assessment has become more rigorous; to achieve a Grade 5, students are expected to have a command of subject terminology and an ability to use a range of punctuation and sentence structures with accuracy and for specific effect. Those with weak literacy skills can therefore become disaffected to mask their difficulties.

My personal project overview

After a number of discussions with Anna and Hannah, I decided that I would look at ways in which it is possible to re-engage students through tasks that are influenced by a project based pedagogy.

The literature surrounding project based learning regularly demonstrates its effectiveness at embedding skills and knowledge in a way that all students engage with on a meaningful level. Polman sings its praises stating that, ‘the most significant contributions of PBL have been in schools languishing in poverty stricken areas; when students take responsibility, or ownership, for their learning, their self-esteem soars. It also helps to create better work habits and attitudes toward learning. In standardized tests, languishing schools have been able to raise their testing grades a full level by implementing Project Based Learning (PBL), (2000).

Initial research undertaken indicates that boys who are ‘less socially mobile’, (The National Literacy Trust), are likely to be amongst the lowest literacy levels compared to their socially mobile peers. Patton’s research seems to indicate that it is this demographic of students who are likely to benefit from the autonomy and ownership of PBL experiences.

However the beneficial effect of PBL is certainly not limited only to these students, autonomy is a powerful motivator for all learners, according to Rowe et al, ‘in order to feel any intrinsic motivation whatsoever, students mist feel a sense of autonomy, like thy are in control of an element of their learning’. On boys literacy they comment that ‘In the early years of secondary schooling boys constitute 75 – 85% of students identified at risk of poor achievement progress in literacy. Of some concern is the flattening out of boys’ literacy achievements from year 4 to year 9,’ (Rowe et al).

When reading this research I began to investigate whether this ‘flattening out’ was a feature of my most disengaged year 10 student, Richard. After looking at his spotlight assessments from year 7 to 10, he was a perfect example of the pattern that Rowe et al discuss. After having taught Richard for six months I could see that his dis-engagement came from his belief that he could not achieve in English, together with the fact that he felt the subject was completely irrelevant for him. I began to focus on how I could create a project that would make learning the skills he required to pass English, obvious and attainable.

Spotlight entry 7.1 7.3 7.6 8.1 8.3 8.6 9.1 9.3 9.6
APP Level 4b 4b 5c 4a 5b 5b 5b 5b 5a

(Richard’s Spotlight assessments from Years 7-9)

I began looking at what constituted a project, and Thomas in PBL; A Handbook, (2000) provided a very helpful five point checklist for educators designing projects. He instructs that projects must be:

  • Central not peripheral to the curriculum:
  • Central concept and principle of a discipline
  • Projects include constructive investigation
  • Projects are usually, but not always, cross curricular
  • Projects are realistic, not ‘school like

Thomas’ pointers focussed my creation of a project, but also provided realisation that projects were a time consuming endeavour. Further research acknowledges this as one of the main pitfalls of such learning. Wethers et al have found that, ‘subject orientated secondary teachers have been less inclined to embrace cross disciplinary curriculum, in the form of projects or a more traditional approach, despite it being proven successful in reengaging previously disengaged secondary students, (2012).’ Hope goes on to explain that even though teachers are, ‘frustrated by national standardised tests that are a primary reason for disengaging boys from their learning’ (2010) PBL takes time and commitment that the majority of secondary schools simply don’t have. Wethers surmises that a lack of resources (time and financial) are a ‘fundamental reason that PBL is not a regular feature of the secondary school classroom, (2012).

Despite this, all of these articles unanimously measure a greater level of success from students in all walks of life when given the opportunity to learn in a project based environment. I became interested in investigating whether the disengaged students in my year 10 class, particularly Richard, could benefit from a version of PBL that I was able to facilitate with a deficiency in time and financial resources.

My project in the classroom

Hi Tech High, California became my next area of investigation. This American High School facilitates an entirely project based curriculum and 94% of their students in 2014 went onto college and university. I decided to replicate a project that they call the visual essay for my year 10 English students.

By considering a knowledge, process product model for differentiation I examined my current pedagogy for teaching essay writing skills to boys with low literacy.


By investigating what I actually meant by ‘learn how to write an essay’ I automatically referred back to the exam boards assessment objectives. In Hi Tech High’s case, they take to raw knowledge and work out a way of presenting it in an informative and engaging way that is open to the public. I decided that my raw knowledge would be my assessment objectives.


Richard decided that he would focus on the subject terminology knowledge, and created a glossary to put on the essay.


Strategies and an evaluation of their efficacy

What worked about the task:

Richard was engaged in the task and through assessment it became clear that Richard knew a number of subject terms that he did not before. Richard also felt a sense of achievement at having completed his section of the task and became aware of a crucial element of the success criteria. Richard stated, ‘It was a good task because I just got on with it. I didn’t have to write loads’ and ‘I got to choose what I wanted to do and just focussed on one bit’

What needed improvement:

On reflection I decided that the project was too ‘school-like’ and it didn’t really hit the real world criteria set out by Thomas. Ways to overcome this might include an open evening where parents come to see a display of a series of visual essays or a competition. Once Richard had decided how to incorporate his subject terminology he did not constructively solve much of a problem; this was another of Thomas’ project criteria and time limitations prevented this from becoming a reality.


The most valuable element of this research for me was to fully recognise the power of and potential of allowing students to be creative, curious, problem solving and autonomous. Whilst there are time restrictions placed on us as teachers, I will endeavour to create as many opportunities for students to practise being these things as possible. I fully agree with Sir Ken Robinson, who advocates that, ‘designing your curriculum around project-based learning is a dynamic way of engaging learners and of cultivating their powers of imagination, creativity and enquiry, (Robinson, K. 2011).


Bentley-Davies, C. (2010) How to be an Amazing Teacher. Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing.

National Literacy Trust (2012) Boys’ Reading Commission. All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission.

Patton, M. (2012) Subject to Change, New thinking of the curriculum ATL The Education Union.

Polman, JL (2000) Project Based Learning in the Secondary School Classroom, a constructive approach Cambridge Journal of Education, (46) 4. pg 12-26.

Thomas, B (2012) Work that matters; a teacher’s guide to project based learning, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Hope, S (2006) The Constructive Classroom, Journal of Problem Based Learning in Higher Education, (6) 34. Pg 76-90.

Engaging Disaffected Learners (2)

(Featured image: ‘untitled’ by stupidmommy is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Engaging Disaffected Learners

An Action Research Project by Hannah Gale


  • To develop my pedagogical understanding of the reasons behind disaffection, particularly in Year 10 boys.
  • To establish and broaden a range of strategies to re-engage disaffected learners.
  • To build resilience and inspire self-confidence in my students.


“…by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap [between boys and girls] is 14 percentage points” (National Literacy Trust).

So, why is this gap so big and what can cause boys to become disaffected learners in English in particular? Firstly, Changes to the examination system at GCSE, mean that students must sit examinations at the end of Year 11 in which they must recall and apply two years’ worth of learning. This is an overwhelming and stressful prospect for many students, who are immediately disengaged by their own assumption that they will fail at this challenge. This can be a huge cause of disaffection at the beginning of Year 10.

The English curriculum has also become more traditional, favouring more 19th century literature and classic British literature, which means that students are working with challenging texts and unfamiliar language. Some boys in particular find it difficult to understand the purpose of studying these texts, which can provoke disaffection, particularly given that English is a compulsory subject that students have not opted into. Indeed, Jim Smith suggests that one of the most effective ways to establish engagement is to give learning purpose and to show its relevance to students (2010).

In addition, GCSE assessment has become more rigorous; to achieve a Grade 5, students are expected to have a command of subject terminology and an ability to use a range of punctuation and sentence structures with accuracy and for specific effect. Those with weak literacy skills can therefore become disaffected to mask their difficulties.


The focus for this action research project has been disaffected boys in my Year 10 GCSE groups, with a view to achieving the following aims:

  • To increase engagement in lessons;
  • To promote a resilient and problem-solving attitude among my most disaffected learners;
  • To use the coaching style as a means of building relationships.  

I have focused on three learners in particular: Andrew, James and Peter.

Background Reading and Research

This project began after my first-hand experience of Coaching with my NQT mentor. In the education sector, coaching is a mentoring technique used in a 1:1 setting to enable a colleague to combat a problem or concern that they are facing. It involves the mentor giving no advice at all, but simply asking probing questions that encourage the mentee to take an independent approach to the problem and to discover their own solutions. This made me consider how the technique might be adapted for students, particularly those who are so disaffected that they lose a desire and/or ability to combat their difficulties. I know that I have very often defaulted to giving answers to my most disaffected learners, never considering that asking them the right questions could prompt them into helping themselves. As Carol Dweck, establishes, learning will happen when students start to ask “What can I learn from this? What will I do next time I’m in this situation?” (2015). Of course, it’s easy to go to a default ‘OK, I’ll explain it again or I’ll help you with that’. What we should be doing is encouraging students to elicit their own solutions and/or to at least pinpoint their own difficulties.

If my mentor could influence me to become more problem-solving and resilient in my approach to difficulties, could I establish that in my students too? I began by reading up on the coaching technique and reading Carol Dweck’s, ‘Growth Mindset’.

According to The MRT Group, these are the benefits of coaching upon an individual:

  • improvement in individual’s performance, targets and goals
  • increased openness to personal learning and development
  • increased ability to identify solutions to specific work-related issues
  • greater ownership and responsibility
  • development of self-awareness
  • improvement of specific skills or behaviour
  • greater clarity in roles and objectives
  • the opportunity to correct behaviour/performance difficulties  

Actions and Results

I tried two different strategies in order to meet my aims and explore a range of techniques to re-engage these students and promote resilience and confidence. Firstly, I used coaching style questioning within my Year 10 lessons. For example, during one lesson observation I combated one statement of disaffection (‘I always fail’), with ‘What could you do next time to help you succeed at this?’ which allowed the student to focus on the solution and not the problem.

In addition I trialled a 1:1 coaching conversation, to see what results this would glean. I chose Andrew for this individual study because I wanted to build a more supportive relationship with him in particular, as well as allow him to identify his own barriers to learning in English and elicit his own solutions for overcoming them.

I was astounded with the result: Andrew spoke eloquently and specifically about his difficulties and was able to arrive at his own solutions. Here are some snippets from our dialogue:

What can help you to be in the right frame of mind for learning?

‘It depends what kind of day I’ve had. If it’s been really boring and I’ve had to do loads of writing throughout the day, then I probably won’t be bothered to do English when I arrive.’

‘If I know I’m gonna be doing something creative where I can let my imagination go then I’ll want to do it.’

What helps you to learn best? (Andrew particularly dislikes analysing texts, which we do a lot of in English. When asked what might help him to engage in the task of analysing a poem, he said):

‘I find thinking of ideas hard, so I think I’d find it easier if you kind of gave me the answers and then I had to find where that was happening in the poem. I think I’d be pretty good at that actually.’  

After this conversation, I put into practice Andrew’s suggestions and saw a new determination in him across a number of English lessons. It is apparent that “self-awareness and confidence are internal processes essential to ongoing growth and development” (‘Why Coaching?’, Wales, 2002). Indeed, when Andrew believed he’d found the solution to his barrier to learning, he was so much more engaged and willing to overcome his difficulties. I believe that the Coaching process can empower disaffected students to take responsibility for their learning and realise that they can make a change.


Dweck, Carol (2015). ‘Growth Mindset’.

National Literacy Trust. ‘Boys’ Reading Commission’.

Wales, Suzy (2002). ‘Why Coaching?’

Smith, Jim (2010). ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’

Engaging Disaffected Learners (1)

(Featured image: ‘English Dictionaries’ by John Keogh is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

An Action Research project by Anna Watkins

Project overview

Working with two other members of the department (Hannah Gale and Megan Dunsby), we established the following aims:

  • To develop our pedagogical understanding of the reasons behind disaffection;
  • To establish and broaden a range of strategies to re-engage disaffected learners;
  • To build resilience and inspire self-confidence.

These give an overview of our foci, and from here we endeavoured to use different strategies to engage disaffected learners. We decided to all concentrate on year 10 students and boys in particular. Having a shared year group meant that we were able to support each other and help each other to develop strategies.

There are a myriad of reasons why students become disaffected, but in the experiences that we had had in our year 10 classrooms we felt that these were the central reasons why:

  • Disaffection hides a literacy weakness;
  • Pressure of year 10 GCSE (especially with current changes);
  • English is compulsory and relevance isn’t obvious to all.


“…by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap [between boys and girls] is 14 percentage points” (National Literacy Trust).

So, why is this gap so big and what can cause boys to become disaffected learners in English in particular? Firstly, the changes to the examination system at GCSE mean that students must sit examinations at the end of Year 11 in which they must recall and apply two years’ worth of learning. This is an overwhelming and stressful prospect for many students, who are immediately disengaged by their own assumption that they will fail at this challenge. This can be a huge cause of disaffection at the beginning of Year 10.

The English curriculum has also become more traditional, favouring more 19th century literature and classic British literature, which means that students are working with challenging texts and unfamiliar language. Some boys in particular find it difficult to understand the purpose of studying these texts, which can provoke disaffection, particularly given that English is a compulsory subject that students have not opted into. Indeed, Caroline Bentley-Davies suggests that a teacher must “signal exactly why you are doing something” (2010, p.165) when improving standards of boys.

In addition, GCSE assessment has become more rigorous; to achieve a Grade 5, students are expected to have a command of subject terminology and an ability to use a range of punctuation and sentence structures with accuracy and for specific effect. Those with weak literacy skills can therefore become disaffected to mask their difficulties.

My personal project overview

After a number of discussions with Megan and Hannah, I decided that I would look at ways in which it is possible to re-engage students through marking strategies. After reading David Didau’s comment that ‘“…apparently, 70% of all feedback given by teachers to pupils falls on stony soil,” I knew that I had to do something different and adapt my normal marking style. Therefore, my aims for this were:

  • To make DIRT more effective with my year 10 boys who initially rejected it;
  • To challenge them through my marking and feedback to ensure progress;
  • To use marking as a means of building relationships.

I had two year 10 classes and therefore used boys from both classes, who were clearly disengaged, to try different strategies with. Recent research points clearly to the importance of valuable feedback as shown in the diagram beneath:

According to Hattie and Timperley (2007) feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.

In a recent paper on formative assessment, Dylan Williams (2014) suggests that:

“Indeed, assessment can be thought of as the bridge between teaching and learning—only through some kind of assessment process can we decide whether instruction has had its intended effect.”

The idea of assessment being a ‘bridge’ between teaching and learning struck a chord with me, and it was from this research that I based my project. In the same paper, Williams also advocates the idea that marking and assessment should be a process which ‘activates students as owners of their own learning’. I decided that I wanted my year 10 students to feel more in charge of their learning, and I planned that my marking would be the means by which I would try this.

Strategies tried and an evaluation of their efficacy

I decided that throughout the year I would try different strategies to re-engage some year 10 students. In fact, these evolved and developed as I got to know my students better, and as I learned what did and didn’t work. Here are the three most prominent techniques I tried:

  1. Highlighting WWW (a department initiative) and providing a code based on a clear success criteria.
  2. Providing regular feedback (in lesson and through marking).
  3. Giving clear tasks or questions of what I wanted them to do to improve, and using this as a form of differentiation.

I soon realised that the first strategy did not have the intended effect I had hoped for. My hope was that if the students could see precisely where they had got it right, they would be clear as to how they could improve. However, I made the common mistake of trying to provide both summative and formative feedback, resulting too often in a disengaged attitude towards marking. The boys who I was targeting also did not appreciate that they had to copy down the highlighted code from the Interactive White Board, and this actually caused a lot more hassle than it was worth. This is an example of a disengaged student’s response to my marking:


And so I realised that the ‘little and often’ approach was necessary for these boys, and I endeavoured to provide them with feedback as much as I could. This was both throughout the lesson and after during marking time. I wanted them to recognise that I valued their written work, especially extended responses and I tried to mark their work as quickly as possible. This definitely helped to improve engagement, and a more positive relationship was created based on their work.

The final strategy that I developed (born out of the failure and success of the previous two) was to provide very specific feedback on what exactly needed to be done to improve. I realised that these boys needed to feel a sense of success, and it was only once I had really got to know them that I could do this accurately. I learned that my marking needed to be a balance of stretching these students enough, without making them feel like they couldn’t do the work. This really helped me to form relationships as they became much more engaged in both the lesson and their own progress. Here are two examples of particularly great work:




The most valuable element of this research for me was to fully recognise the power of feedback in establishing high expectations and good progress. It was through developing good relationships with these students that I was able to understand their strengths and areas for development, and I then used this knowledge to inform my marking. By allowing these students to feel like they can succeed in English, I believe that their engagement in the subject has improved.


Bentley-Davies, C. (2010) How to be an Amazing Teacher. Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing.

Didau, D. (2015) The Learning Spy. Website:

Hattie, J and Timperley, H. (2007) The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research 2007 77: 81

National Literacy Trust (2012) Boys’ Reading Commission. All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission.

Williams, D. (2014) Formative assessment and contingency in the regulation of learning processes. Institute of Education, University of London.