Boosting confidence, communication and learning skills

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Enquiring School: Gareth Mills from the NFER presents Paget Primary School with its Research Mark (Photo: Courtesy of The NFER)

Staff at Paget Primary School have carried out a range of enquiry and research-led investigations to help boost their pupils' confidence, communication and learning skills. Dorothy Lepkowska explains

When teachers at Paget Primary School began to observe their reception pupils and how they interacted, they noticed a worrying trend. Although the children played together quite happily, there was very little talk going on between them.

"There was very little conversation going on about their activity, what they were doing and how they were doing it," explained Carole Thomas, assistant headteacher at the Birmingham school.

"Staff had videoed them and noticed particular patterns of behaviour. The children played nicely together, but didn't seem to be talking.

"What we wanted was for them to use language; to show curiosity about what they were doing and to use the appropriate vocabulary for the activity. None of this was happening. So the staff put in a lot of work on encouraging them to talk to each other, using the correct words about what they were doing and the items they were using.

"Staff modelled the words themselves to get across the message that this was the expectation they had of the children. After a while, with some perseverance, the language started to flow."
The exercise with the reception class was one of a number of evidence-informed projects undertaken by staff at the primary school over two terms last year through the Enquiring Schools programme – work that has since earned the school the Research Mark from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

"We were keen for our staff to carry out their own research into what works, apply this through their own enquiries and to understand the difference this approach could bring to their classroom practice, and teaching and learning," Ms Thomas explained. "It was a way of empowering them to take control over teaching in their class and to find ways of improving it.

"INSET days are all very well, but being told how to do something and going off to do it on your own to see how it works with your pupils is something else entirely. We were excited at the prospect of giving them the time and support to be able to carry out their own enquiries."

Three key pieces of research formed the basis of their own investigations. Research into the power of feedback and peer review as described in Ron Berger's book, An Ethic of Excellence, was particularly influential.

Staff at Paget also referred to the Education Endowment Foundation's Teaching and Learning Toolkit to examine strategies to support independent learning. And Professor John Hattie's book Visible Learning, encouraged teachers to think about the impact of feedback, meta-cognition and language of learning as high-impact strategies.

Prior to their engagement with the research and application through enquiry, teachers identified priorities through workshops and discussion using, for example, a Bag for Life activity – an NFER strategy which lists all the learning and individual traits that teachers want children to possess (see image). A traffic light system of colour-coding is attached to each word to identify whether pupils are strong in this characteristic (green), whether some are proficient (amber), or whether it is something the school needs to work towards (red).

In all, staff at Paget Primary carried out five individual enquiry strands over two terms last year, divided according to age group.

The nursery class was inspired by the video Austin's Butterfly, a clip from Ron Berger that shows children improving their work through a series of drafts based on peer feedback.

Teachers at Paget used similar techniques and worked with a small group of children on drawing geometric shapes, including rockets and spacecraft (see image). Over a short time they made great improvements in their observation and drawing skills. The message was that, with the right feedback, children can produce high-quality work.

"We should have high expectations of pupils," Ms Thomas said. "This is crucial for teachers – constantly to expect more and better from pupils."

Teachers in years 1 and 2 focused on independent learning as their research project. "When pupils were asked what good independent learning meant to them, they responded that it was about sitting up straight and folding their arms, so it was clear there was work to be done," Ms Thomas said.

Staff set about introducing new concepts into class that would develop the skills associated with independent learning. Teachers observed that some pupils expected things to be done for them, or for the teacher to always intervene. Pupils were encouraged to take more responsibility for their own learning, for example by asking friends for help or doing some independent research.

Ms Thomas continued: "After a while we noticed that pupils did not always refer straight to the teacher but found ways of solving their problem. At the same time, this improved teaching and learning because the children were more focused and sustained learning for longer because they weren't constantly seeking the attention of the teacher."

Meanwhile, staff teaching years 3 and 4 did a baseline assessment asking pupils how they rated their abilities in different aspects of learning. They discovered that children who were particularly confident rated themselves the highest, even though they were not necessarily the most competent.

As part of the exercise, pupils were asked why they thought a particular piece of work was good, and were expected to discuss aspects such as presentation as well as content. This enabled them to see what a good piece of work should look like.

"Of course we want children to be confident, but not overly so, when they think they can do everything and do it well," Ms Thomas said. "The teachers learned a great deal about children's perceptions of themselves, and where they saw their strengths and weaknesses. Again, the outcome was that teachers were able to set higher expectations, and to encourage and stretch, and not to accept mediocrity."

Peer-tutoring was the focus for enquiry for staff teaching years 5 and 6. Again teachers wanted to create more opportunities for pupils to reflect, amend and modify their work. The strategy they explored involved sticking paper plates listing particular concepts to the classroom wall, joined by ribbons, on which children could peg their names to say they had achieved that skill. The joining of the plates showed pupils how they were acquiring related skills. Children who struggled with a certain aspect of their work were able to seek help from classmates who were more proficient in that area. The exercise lent itself well to literacy teaching, specifically different genres.

Ms Thomas said: "By using these methods we empowered teachers to use research in a way that was of practical use to them in the classroom. We wanted them to 'live' it and not just read about it. Crucially, it was tailored towards our pupils and their learning, and where we felt it was most needed.

The Enquiring Schools methodology is based on seven steps, which helps a school to focus and gives structure to the exercise.

Gareth Mills, who heads up the programme at NFER, explained: "The whole rationale of the programme is to build a bridge between research and practice. There is a lot of educational research out there, but the trick is to ensure it is being used effectively."

One of the key issues, Mr Mills highlights, was to factor in the time to access the research first and then plan the enquiries. He visited Paget five times to talk to teachers, offer advice and help, and ensure that each project remained on track. He also observed the presentations from staff that led to the awarding of the Research Mark.

"Enquiring Schools is an approach to teacher development and school improvement that involves engagement with research," he added. "We have found that the best way to learn is to involve teachers in collaborative inquiry in issues that genuinely affect them or their pupils, and help to bring about change in schools. In self-improving schools everyone is a learner, teachers as well as children."

And while the experience is empowering, it can also be a little scary for participants. Ms Thomas added: "It can actually be a potentially threatening exercise because, in analysing your own practice, you see your own shortcomings as a teacher. But all of our staff entered into the exercise with enthusiasm and a strong desire to ensure they were getting it right in the classroom."

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

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