Wednesday, 9 April 2014

"What did you just say?!" - Using student voice to enhance your teaching

'Student voice' and student participation have become established features in most schools, but this is often restricted to input about school meals rather than teaching and learning. 

Here, we investigate how teachers can ensure students play a role in personalising their own learning.

Many schools gather student opinion on areas such as school meal, bullying or uniforms... in fact, student voice is viewed as essential in every area other than the most important - their learning! 

Asking students to provide constructive feedback on your teaching may sound a little scary at first. But since students can often give surprisingly perceptive advice, to avoid student voice is to avoid a powerful tool for improvement.

‘One of the most creative and productive ways I have found of using student voice is to adopt an explicit coaching model,’ says Marcella McCarthy in a recent article for one of our magazines. 

She suggests the GROW model:
  • Goals
  • Reality
  • Obstacles
  • Way forward

In other words, you need to focus on where you want to get to, where are you at the moment, the things that might get in your way (and the ways around them) and then agree a course of action.

G - Establishing goals
One easy way to establish shared goals is to make them part of a starter activity. Using post-it notes at the beginning of each lesson to ask students to set a personal target can a tremendous tool for gauging the mood of the class that day and finding the things that students themselves are worried about.

Marcella says: 'A favourite tactic of mine is to set out the learning objective, explain that this is what I would like the students to learn, and then ask them what they want to achieve in this lesson. I make clear that this might be the learning objective, but that it could be something else, even something as simple as trying to ask a question.

'Written on a post-it, then put on their desks, or on a board, the target remains as a visible reminder of their own purpose; a concrete goal. 

'Following this up with another post-it task at the end of the lesson, where students have to write down what they achieved can be equally revealing. I tend to use the formula: "it can be the same thing that you planned, or it may be something completely different that surprised you".

R - Establishing reality - where we are now
Establishing 'where we are now' is already a familiar teaching tool - after all, what is marking students' work and giving feedback on assessments if not focusing on the reality of the 'now'?

Ideally, marking should be more than an assessment of where a child currently stands with regard to a particular skill-set,' says Marcella. 'The best marking engages in dialogue with the student, and builds into its framework space for a response. 

It's also a good idea to get student feedback on your own work. It may seem challenging, but there are a number of ways this can be done.

A useful tool is a set of plenary question cards. Questions might include:
  • What did you find most and least useful in today’s lesson?
  • What did you learn in this lesson, and how did you learn it?
  • What learning choices did you have in this lesson?
  • What was the most engaging part of today’s lesson?
  • If I were going to teach this lesson again to a similar group, what would you advise me to change?
And so on. The notes gathered from their responses can come in handy, not only for the overall learning process, but also for giving feedback during parents’ evenings.

O - Recognising obstacles and/or options
Obstacles to learning for the student in your class are clear enough - recognising such obstacles is the core of good differentiation practice. 

Teachers at Marcella's school use class profiles. This is a colour-coded seating plan, indicating students’ educational profile (SEN, summer-born, most and least able etc.), their education needs (would the student benefit from a different coloured worksheet for example?), along with their current working levels and predicted levels.

Asking students what strategies they find particularly useful, and what obstacles they feel are getting in the way of their learning, is one way of personalising learning, and finding out more about what makes your students tick.

W - Finding the way forward - a case study
Marcella recalls: ‘When teaching two parallel classes in Year 10, working toward a controlled assessment in English Literature, I found it difficult to deal with what seemed to me a certain passivity about what they were learning. I felt that students wanted me to tell them what to do at every step of the way, and were becoming less and less curious and independent.’

Marcella decided to follow the GROW model.

Goals - working out where they wanted to be
'Although the students were already aware of the task and the assessment criteria, I took
another lesson out to explain these things to them again. I showed them a model essay on a similar topic, and got them to identify what the student had done to deserve a high score for this task.'

Reality - working out where they were
'I shared with the students some recent marking to give them an indication of where they
currently were with regard to these skills. We took time to discuss what a good mark in this unit would mean to them personally, and what kind of marks they currently thought they might get.'

Obstacles - what did they fear?
'A long discussion about the potential obstacles to this then ensued (which I marked
for speaking and listening).

'I soon found that many of them felt that Shakespeare was too challenging, and anticipated that other students would find it ‘easy’. Even within the class, they were reassured to find that everyone had reservations about their ability to succeed.'

The way forward
'Following this, I laid out for them a number of parameters. I explained how many 
lessons we had, and we divided up the skills that they felt they needed to practice. I told them that they could choose what I taught them in the intervening time, and could also choose how I taught it.'

I gave them some suggestions, but at this stage stepped back from the discussion, curious to see what would ensue. Both classes came up with a list of priorities for my teaching as a result of their group work...These priorities were surprisingly similar to those that I would have set if left entirely to myself.'

'I made the priorities into PowerPoint slides, and we used them at the start of each lesson, as a forerunner to the learning objective. Each lesson we highlighted a particular focus, and as the lessons went on, the students could see that I was paying attention to their plans.

'As we went on, the plans were modified to reflect student progress, with some asking for more input on certain areas. It became personalised learning in the best sense. 

'Because of their sharing of their goals and the ways in which they discussed their perceived obstacles to learning, I managed to forge a stronger relationship. with both groups, where learning, rather than behaviour or entertainment, became the basis of our discussions. 

More than this though, Marcella found that these lessons created a new sense of purpose for all her students, who then went on to complete the controlled assessments to a high standard.

The material in this article is taken from the article, 'The coach in the classroom: Practical strategies for using student voice to improve teaching' by Marcella McCarthy, published in Professional Development Today.

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