“When is good behaviour no longer good enough?”

An Action Research post by Aleisha Woodley (Pupil Welfare)

Our Ofsted report in 2014 stated: “The behaviour of students is good in lessons and around the school.  Relationships are respectful and productive and learning is greatly valued.” Whilst I don’t always look to Ofsted reports for up to date reflections of school life in this case it gives a picture of the context of behaviour in our school. The Headteacher, SLT, and all staff model in their interactions that positive relationships are at the heart of all that we do. Not that we can say it is perfect but it runs through the heart of this Catholic school. Oftsed went on to say, “The school closely checks on students’ behaviour, including those in alternative provision, and sets high standards of behaviour.  Staff are effective in dealing with any issues that arise.  Rewards and sanctions are clear and well understood by students.”

As the behaviour lead in SLT for the past 8 years I was proud of the progress that had been made.  It saluted the hard work of all staff.  We had made many changes over that time including centralising some of our detentions, reorganising and changing our pastoral structure to include non-teaching staff.

As in any school behaviour of students and any disruptions to learning are an emotive subject for staff, students and parents alike.  Our students come from varied backgrounds and represent over 30 primary schools from the south and east of the city of Bristol.

Our school self-evaluation is robust and searching, it includes self-review with other members of SLT, Headteacher reviews as well as external reviews.  Each of these reviews produces searching and detailed recommendations. It is unfailingly honest.   It was through this process as well as informal visits to classes and data monitoring on a weekly and termly basis, that showed up some anomalies in behaviour data between different faculties and the same groups in different classrooms.  It made me reflect on a blog I had shared with new staff, NQTs and PGCE students from Tom Bennett 04/01/2017 @tombennett71.  He called his blogpost Leadership: Reboot your school’s behaviour 2017. In it he reflected on students’ behaviour that varies, he said. “Ever seen how a student will behave for one teacher but not another, as if they were two different people? They pick up cues wherever they go; they act one way in the playground and another at Grandma’s.” Our evidence showed that supply staff; staff new to the school and new teachers were struggling with some aspects of the behaviour system, it was not working for them all of the time in preventing low level interruptions to learning which is the most significant as far as our analysis was concerned.

I attended a training day by @pivotalpaul, it was an exceptional day calling upon his experiences in mainstream and PRU education.  Some of the key messages that led to further reflection and developments were as follows (please forgive any misinterpretation but this is what I took away):

  • If you want students to follow your rules make them simple and understandable – follow the rule of 3.
  • Ensure every adult is using and displaying the behaviour you want from them. If this is being on the corridor at lesson change-over or greeting pupils at the door. One of our SLT phrased it as, ‘every adult, every time.’ (which has become a key phrase and action for us all).
  • Check consistency amongst the adults; if it’s important insist on it.

At the same time I researched a successful behaviour system implemented by several schools in the Bristol, South Gloucestershire and the Somerset areas. This system was called Ready to Learn.  I am eternally grateful to Clare Braford, Headteacher and Nicole Cerullo, Deputy Headteacher from Henbury School; Dan Goater, Assistant Headteacher from Bedminster Down School and Tony Searle, Principal at Hans Price Academy. They gave their time and expertise generously.  Each school had implemented their own version of Ready to Learn but the core principle remains the same.  Ready to Learn is a binary system that is simple and clear for students and staff, that gives students a chance to be ‘ready to learn’.  On the second occasion they are not ‘ready to learn’ in a lesson they are sent to isolation to work independently of their class. The onus is back on the students to be responsible, follow the rules and be prepared for their learning with the right equipment, on time and with a work-focused attitude.  The expectations for our students are to:

  • Be prepared
  • Be polite
  • Work hard

They succinctly summarise the rules that previously expanded upon these expectations.  Students are able to articulate them and are clearer about what they mean.  After visiting the three schools referred to above, I reflected with the Headteacher and SLT about how this could work in our school context. I was reminded of the quote from Dylan William and his blog post @dylanwilliam on why teaching will never be a research-based profession and why that’s a good thing. He asserts that, “everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.”  The schools we had visited had certainly adapted Ready to Learn to their school and context.  The way it was constructed had not diminished its core or effectiveness but did reflect the needs of each school and its context.  One school with  a high percentage of pupil premium students had invested heavily in support and intervention for pupils who were not getting it right in the early days of its implementation. Another had spent a lot of time working with staff prior to implementation so they could be familiar with every aspect of the programme and ensure its implementation was seamless.  A third school had worked extensively to ensure it permeated every aspect of school life and this was evident from the exercise books, to expectations of teachers in ‘Ready to Teach’ and leaders in ‘Ready to Lead.’ The extent to which the Principal had established the language, principles and culture within the school in a relatively short space of time enabled all staff new to the school to have the same impact with the students and therefore disruptions to learning were rare.

I took all the information from the visits and the advice received and put together the strengths and lessons learned.  Bill Rogers work, which I came across through Tom Sherrington some years ago at @teacherhead, also influenced my thinking and planning for our own introduction of Ready to Learn:

  • Positive correction- a non-confrontational approach to discipline based on positive teacher-student relationships. The Ready to Learn (RTL) system is clear about the warnings given and the expectations on pupils at all times.
  • Prevention – planning for good behaviour; teaching the routines and the rules. The level of detail in the introduction to staff, students, parents and Governors led by the Headteacher meant there could be no misunderstandings.  All non-teaching staff were also inducted in their part of this, empowering them in a way that we had not previously implemented universally.  Lab technicians giving ‘red card’ detentions for ignoring rules in the super lab for example.   This fed the ‘every adult, every time’ philosophy that underpins our version of RTL.
  • Consequences – have a clear structure that students understand and use to inform the choices they make. In our previous behaviour system pupils knew well that they could get warnings before a consequence kicked in, which were not universally applied with the same rigour in every classroom. With RTL warnings clearly displayed and a universal language, it is clear for all with a much swifter impact of  consequences.
  • Repair and rebuild – the imperative to work hard to build and repair the damage that is done when things don’t work out. Restorative conversations have become the absolute must for repairing that all important relationship with the student.  Staff have the restorative conversation the same day if possible.  Students then believe they can get it right.

Tom’s own reflections included the suggestion that teachers need to exercise assertive authority: a teacher should expect compliance but refuse to rely on power or the status of their role to gain respect. This last concept is one that we have worked on with staff over a number of years.   The assertions from Bill Rogers were exactly what we wanted to implement after considering what our data was telling us, coupled with classroom visits, as well as staff and pupil feedback.  The RTL video from our website ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhbVesuIcFE&feature=youtu.be) summarises the tenets of the approach with reflections from some our students as to why they wanted it.

I don’t have the room here to explain in detail exactly how we went about devising our version of Ready to Learn, the stages we went through with Governors, SLT, staff, parents and students to introduce, familiarise, embed and launch it with them all.  We had a three week trial in July that went really well.  It has now been in place since September and indications are very positive.  We are learning as we go but we are not changing or compromising on the fundamental principles which were introduced by our Headteacher to all staff back in March. The hard work and the level of planning that has gone on behind the scenes have been monumental.  The proof is in the classroom, as it should be.  Ask teachers at our school and they are planning more work per lesson due to the increased focus and attention of pupils. They are not running detentions except academic catch up ones for missed homework.  This has been a time-saver especially when previously they had to pass on for follow up a detention if the student did not attend.  RTL and Red Card detentions for poor behaviour are centralised (@tombennett71 blogged about the benefits for teaching staff of centralised detentions 20/01/2017 in “Sharing is caring: Why centralised detentions might save your sanity.”).  Staff so far are very positive about the benefits of not having to add detentions to their workload.

If behaviour was rated as good before we are thrilled and excited that this could improve the learning focus and time available for learning to meet the curriculum demands that we all face. But that’s another blog for another time…

References

Tom Bennett: ‘Teachers: reboot your classroom behaviour 2017’ –  http://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/teachers-reboot-your-classroom.html

Dylan Williams: Why teaching isn’t—and probably never will be—a research-based profession – https://researched.org.uk/sessions/dylan-wiliam/#toggle-id-1

Featured image: ‘successful’ by 3dman_eu on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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

An Action Research project by Kate Rolfe (Geography)

Objective

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.

Background

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.

Context

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.

Actions

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.

Conclusions

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