I CAN consultant Clive Robson reflects on the exciting work he has been doing with Oasis Enfield, who have achieved universal level validation for I CAN’s Secondary Talk.

Congratulations to Enfield Oasis who have become the latest secondary school to achieve an award from I CAN in recognition of the excellent work they have done in developing their students’ communication skills.

Belinda Chapple, the outgoing Assistant Head who led this initiative within the school said,’The staff at Oasis were committed to learning and sharing new ideas, and taking time to reflect on, and adjust, their practice. So it’s a big thank you to them – we are delighted to achieve Universal Validation from I CAN for Secondary Talk”.

The school decided to launch a year focusing on improving the quality of students’ talk in September 2013. They decided to focus on:

  • Developing the skills of the teaching assistant team
  • Improving the quality of the Learning Family Time – a daily session where students work with small tutor groups and hold structured discussions about something topical in the news
  • The quality of teaching in the 6th form which only started in September 2012.

The impact of the programme has been very impressive.   I ran 3 training sessions for the large TA team focusing on how to help students be more independent, how to manage their own learning better and how to develop their communication skills which were weak for a significant number of pupils.

The TAs came up with some great suggestions – for example what to say when a student says they are stuck. Rather than jumping in with answers, they practised responding with a question such as ‘what did you do last time you got stuck with something like this?’ or who can help you solve this?’ or often just getting the student to really clarify which bit they are stuck on. As one TA said after the session “I’m trying out some of the strategies we learnt to help students when they say they are stuck without doing it for them.”

We also looked at different types of questioning – open and closed and different ways of seeing questions in a hierarchy of complexity. The TAs agreed that too often less able students get a dry ‘diet’ of largely closed and comprehension-type questions with fewer open and deductive or creative questions.   At the end of that session, one TA remarked “I’m using a check on open and closed questions so that the pupils get a good variety – I’ve noticed that I need to use closed questions to check they understand what I’m saying and then open questions to get them thinking and engaged. It’s working well so far.”

The school has a new 6th form and part of my work as the I CAN consultant was to work with those teachers who teach 6th form students and think through what might be called a pedagogy for key stage 5. I started with some interviews with a dozen or so very articulate year 13 students. They noted that ‘the style of teaching in key stage 5 is not hugely different to that in year 11’ while another student commented. In year 11 we were spoon-fed, now we have to work more independently. We’re not sure how to’.

Some said they needed better transition support from year 11 into the 6th form. They felt the 2 week transition focused too much on expectations of behaviour and not enough on developing skills of e.g. independent learning.

There was also an interesting discussion about teaching and learning styles: one said ‘we love it when we get to come out and write on the board. We love debates but don’t get enough. I love interaction – I can’t just sit and learn, I’ve got to be doing things. Some teachers see discussion as a luxury rather than a great way of learning.’

In a number of schools I’ve been working in, there is a move to gather student views about how they are taught in a way that is developmental to staff and makes clear that the onus for learning is on the students. One student said ‘we wish we could give some feedback to the teachers – it’s us that’s got to pass the exams so we wouldn’t be rude.’

This open dialogue was sensitively fed back to the teaching staff. 4 months later, I repeated the interviews with a similar group of students and they had noticed a difference.

‘We’ve noticed that there are more opportunities to discuss in class and we like this. We like to work together – we learn from our peers.’ They loved their maths lessons in particular: ‘we get loads of discussion in Maths – the teacher gives a group of us a problem and we have to solve it together. Then the teacher goes through it with us- we love the way Maths is taught’. ‘You can’t just learn by being told things- you have to be told and then practise it again and again and talking with our peers when we do that helps.’

The ‘pro- discussion’ views did have some opposition though. For example one student felt ‘when there’s too much discussion, we end up getting more homework to learn the key facts which I don’t like.’

The school’s talented head of 6th form, Rob Bird and Belinda (as Literacy Lead), ran some excellent training for staff on how to structure and prompt quality discussion. In one geography lesson a very skilled teacher felt that the limited quality of the talk of students was reducing the ability of the students to get the top grades. She adjusted a card game, devised by a drama teacher,with opening sentence stems that students had to place on the table before speaking saying things like ‘I like the point you have made, but there is evidence that supports a different view’. The students could see that this slightly exaggerated way of getting them to structure their discussion so they could move more easily from a good spoken answer to a grade A written answer was very helpful. They made it very enjoyable.

The teaching assistants also like this idea of using ‘stem cards’ to structure the talk of less able pupils. One TA noted ”I liked the stem starter idea. I’m going to create some stems for individual pupils – I’ve got one pupil who doesn’t listen very well. I’ve got a card planned with a starter ‘I like what you say but my opinion is…’ “ Another TA said “I’m going to make some stem starter questions for my year 11 English class. They have to compare different characters in books. Stems like ‘in this book I like the character because … In the other book, I like …’”

Congratulations to Oasis Enfield.

Clive Robson, I CAN consultant