The group consisted of 11 WBQ students coming to the end of their first year. The students attended this class for 2 hours each Monday afternoon, and had spent the previous 12 weeks producing an individual investigation as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate studies.
The group was characterised by having a broad range of abilities, with many students demonstrating challenging behaviour and having a variety of learning disabilities. One student spoke English as a second language. Motivation, self-esteem, poor expectations and behavioural issues such as bullying, swearing and breaking college rules were on-going issues among the group.
Before people can learn, two things have to happen: They have to feel safe and supported, have no fear of criticism; and the brain has to be excited’. [www.parelli.com]
The purpose of this session was to continue efforts to inspire the learners to raise their game and improve their own learning. A strong emphasis was placed upon challenging unacceptable behaviour, in response to the feedback from SPE1, where the strategy had been to in effect ‘ignore the bad and emphasis the good’ to facilitate change. During the session the learners were required to:
1. Work in pairs, using kinaesthetic and verbal skills, experience the difficulty of teaching and learning and the importance of effective communication and co-operation to facilitate learning.
2. Working individually, in writing, feed back on their Individual Investigation assignments and understand the importance of reflecting on what they had achieved.
3. Working in teams using ‘mind map’ principles and time-limitations, undertake group research (through internet and questioning) on a topic relevant to their second year WBQ studies and present their findings verbally and as a poster to the rest of the class.
The underlying theme of the session was of ‘seeing the big picture’:
‘Using the ‘big picture’ style the student was more motivated, had more fun, found it easy, was not so obsessed with detail and making a mistake.’ [www.parelli.com]
They were also being invited to experience the difficulty of teaching to start to change their own attitude to the learning process and start to see themselves as active members of the teaching-learning process.
Key skills at an appropriate level were embedded in the session. VARK and differentiation were important elements in the session, with all learning styles and abilities catered for and extension material provided for higher performers.
Assessment of learning was carried out throughout the session, through peer-assessment, self-assessment, written assessment, questioning, and end product.
The group’s insecurity about classroom-based learning had been a barrier to many of the group performing in a formal atmosphere, which is why the strategy for this group had changed as the tutor became familiar with the individual’s needs and difficulties.
From the learners initial expectations that they were to undertake an essay-based assignment (which most felt was beyond them or which some felt they could achieve by copying information from the internet to the required word count) alternative assessment methods had been introduced.
By changing the culture of the classroom from the passive, pedagogical style that the students had appeared to expect to a more dynamic, student-centred and creative process, control of the group would be more of a challenge for the tutor, but it was anticipated that they would also start to perform in a positive way and start to gain something meaningful from the sessions.
This session began with a reminder of the agreement that had been made for the students to be more adult and appropriate in their behaviour and use of language, although this tended to slide away as the learners found themselves being challenged to undertake the class activities.
The measurement of their learning and participation was considered to be more reliable indicators of the students’ performance and the variety of approaches being used to modify their unacceptable behaviour most be considered to be on-going. Compared to the initial assessment of the group, they are both behaving and performing at an improved level than they were.
The ‘Back to Back’ game was designed to empower the learners by letting them have a go at teaching (ref ‘Learning to Learn’ cited by Linda Parelli, horse-trainer, in http://www.parelli.com/).
All students (including three notorious ‘social loafers’) performed and measured the performance of their peers. There was a fun and competitive atmosphere, with students enjoying themselves and taking a leap of faith by trying out the tasks without understanding what it was all about. The trust between the learners and the tutor was very apparent in the way they conducted themselves and handled the learning resources.
Many students began to realise the purpose of the task and some were able to connect the game to the concept of different learning styles, and the difference between teaching detail versus giving people the ‘big picture’.
All realised that the game was about teaching and communicating, rather than about magically getting it right in a flash.
This game was highly-differentiated to allow equal participation. The highest achieving students were given paper-based activities as well as one-colour Lego blocks to make the task of communicating more difficult. Interestingly, one student used a ‘Big Picture’ approach by telling her partner that her object looked like a crocodile, which made explaining the different sized one-colour blocks easier. The vision difficulties of two members of the group were catered for in the choice of colours and contrast used in one of the sets of blocks.
The written self-assessment of their Individual Investigation served as a reminder of the work they had done, and an opportunity to reflect on what they had achieved. The worksheets also provided important written evidence for their portfolios.
The worksheet also allowed students to sit and settle down for a few minutes between the more dynamic tasks, and showed that the tutor was able to control the students enough to have a moment where they were all sitting down, reading and writing.
The main task of the session was to research different areas on the subject of health, as laid out in the WBQ curriculum. Individuals were not allowed to chose their group members, to break down friendship/gang loyalties or hostility to students seen as poorer performing. The mixed groups were then encouraged to play to their strengths, with different roles identified: leader, scribe, researcher.
This approach had been tried earlier in the course. The outcome was poor, apparent when judged by the standard of the work submitted and the high level of support required.
This time, the results were dramatically improved, with all groups producing an acceptable standard of group work, presentation and end-product. The presentation done by two of the three presenters was of a particularly high standard, due in part to the tutor being more aware of the individual’s strengths and abilities and also due to the students feeling safe enough to address their peers. The rest of the class also actively participated in being an audience for each other.
On a personal note, I am aware that some students do take advantage on occasions, but given the base we were all at when I first met this group, I feel that we’ve all been on a journey and that we have all changed our behaviour to a certain extent.
The group has gone from being an exhausting ‘mission impossible’ to performing better than had been expected, as my own teaching knowledge and skills have been developed during the PGCE. I have made no secret of my rookie status to this group, and while some take this as an opportunity to take liberties to a certain extent, there has also been enthusiasm, support and empathy from the group. Some have commented that they are learning, as the assessor put it ‘despite trying not to.’
The behaviour issues are resolving, as those students for whom this course isn’t relevant begin to move on to other things, leaving those students who wish to continue, to begin to take ownership of their learning and start to invest in it.
Parrelli, L Stretch Your Brain 2006
[WWW] http://www.parelli.com/info_page.php?page=article&lit_num=24&title=Stretch%20Your%20Brain!&t=lit [AccessedJune 3 2007]