‘If a new programme works, teachers get little of the credit; if it fails they get most of the blame.’ (Fullan 1991 p117). That pretty much summed up how I felt upon taking on a challenging mixed-ability group as my first proper incursion into the reality of teaching.
So far, I have found it difficult to access hard information about the students’ academic abilities. I am also learning what different educational abilities are, from discovering the different levels of attainment in Key Skills, Bloom’s Taxonomy, GCSE grades and other academic achievements, to beginning to understand the surprisingly broad spectrum of abilities within each course group.
As a rookie teacher, most of my understanding of students support needs has had to come from making assumptions about them, based upon the course they are attending; testing the students at the outset (to give me a snapshot of their performance abilities); speaking to their tutors and by the presence of LSAs in the classroom. Ultimately, I have become aware of their strengths, weaknesses and the degree of support they require by being with them; interacting with them; challenging them and working with them.
For example, and for the purposes of this essay, I wish to reflect upon the different support needs of my Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification first year students. Their assignment was a 1,500 word essay: students needed to write an individual investigation on a subject of their choosing, relating to issues inWalesand comparing their findings with another country.
While I became aware that some students only required the motivation, a proper briefing on how to do the assignment, some study time and regular tutorials to feedback on their work and check progress, for others producing an essay was simply beyond their ability.
But did that mean that the student was incapable of carrying out an investigation of this type? On reflection, it was clear that the students who would struggle with a reading/writing assignment could be motivated to carry out the assignment if they could be encouraged to find out about their investigation using a variety of methods, and present it in a different way for final assessment.
The nature of the support needed, particularly among the less-able students, was multi-faceted. They needed support in developing:
- appropriate behaviours in the classroom
- motivation to attempt the assignment
- assistance in adapting from the psycho-motor domain of the kitchen to the cognitive domain of the classroom
- the skills required to undertake research
- how to find relevant information
- how to present their findings
- literacy (spelling and grammar)
- reading skills
The strategies I employed to deliver support was also multi-faceted. I fostered a friendly, supportive and enjoyable atmosphere in the classroom where less-able students would begin to ‘feel safe enough to take the risk to learn’. (Vernon Warder, lecturePembrokeshireCollegeMarch 21 2007).
Students were motivated by employing a variety of learning styles – from games and informal quizzes to poster/mind map tasks, use of interactive whiteboard, atlas, text books with high graphic/pictorial content, and a strong emphasis on assessment of learning through questioning.
Once I had built a picture of my students’ needs and abilities, I devised a questionnaire, offering a variety of ways the students could present their final projects for assessment (appendix 1). This took into account the students’ needs and the assessment criteria, and had been agreed by a more experienced member of staff.
This was effective because, by allowing the students to choose their method of assessment, I placed ownership of their learning in their own hands and recognised their varying learning styles and abilities. The students with the greatest support needs with literacy had the option of developing those skills, with help, by putting together a filmed documentary, poster or powerpoint presentation, designed to build on their current skills and give them the chance to undertake the assignment in creative ways.
By studying the ‘Pyramid of Support’ theory (Baker/Brown 2006) which suggests that about 80% of students will operate at ‘tier one’ and will manage to follow the curriculum without needing intense individual support, 15% will be what have in the past been the group that ‘receives the least amount of attention (Adelman & Taylor 2005) but will respond quickly to some additional intervention, while about 5% will have the most intensive needs and require the most ‘innovative and specific interventions’ (Baker & Brown 2006 p 13).
More able students responded very quickly to brief but intense conversations with me about their assignments, reinforced by hand-outs and regular feedback on their work. Most students required
The student with the highest support needs, DJ, was provided with a great deal of support. This included one-to-one time with me, the availability of an LSA, support using the computer, video camera, internet-based research and powerpoint. I built into this the opportunity for this student to meet with and interview a much more able and independent student, who assisted this student in giving him evidence for his documentary. The main reason for this was to have a relevant case study, but the unofficial benefits of this was to build confidence in the student (who had excellent communication skills that hid his literacy issues)
 Sarah Hoss RPD4 March 2007