…Best Use of Teaching Assistants with Cooperative Learning #3; II “Use TAs to add value to what teachers do, not replace them”

This series of articles explains how Cooperative Learning will make the seven recommendations in the EEF Making best use of TAs Guidance Report a lived reality in your school, simply and cost-efficiently.

In accordance with these recommendations, the ultimate objective of my work with Evolution Academy Trust is to “transform the way Teaching Assistants are deployed and supported, to help them thrive in their role and improve outcomes for pupils” (Guidance, p. 29).

The seven recommendations are found in Section 5 of the report; This article discusses Recommendation II:

EEF Recommendation II header



Equal access to teacher for all pupils

It is vital that the pupils who struggle most have no less time with the teacher than others. However, what often happens is that “difficult” children, including those with SEN, are removed for intervention by TAs who may not have the specialist training to give them the support they need. This was a real concern among teaching assistants during the Evolution sessions.

So, rather than deploy TAs in ways that replace the teacher, the Guidance Report suggests that TAs be used in the opposite way – to enable teachers to work more with lower-attaining pupils and those with SEN. How can Cooperative Learning help achieve this?

First of all, because it organises and enforces engaging peer-to-peer work, Cooperative Learning removes the need for the teacher-at-the-board as the object of focus. This allows her to move freely, monitoring and focusing on specific children or teams as the lesson progresses.

I personally prefer using a rota, so I am certain each team/pupil gets a focus at least once a fortnight. A class of thirty-odd pupils composed of roughly 7-8 teams means that is entirely possible. As teams may stay together for up to 2 months, your rota of teams should bring you through all teams 3-4 times before they are disbanded. Then, when you reorganise pupils into new teams, you print out the list, and there is your new rota.

However, the danger of delving into a single team or pupil is the loss of the bird’s eye view, which could potentially lead to off-task behaviour, losing the sense of pace, not discovering the rest of the class is struggling or missing learning opportunities.

Here, the TA is worth her weight in gold. Because the core Cooperative Learning Interaction PatternsCooperative Learning Interaction Patterns are replicated with different content, day in and day out, the TA knows exactly what ideal practice is supposed to look like. Even if she does not have dedicated planning time – because she is present when the task is set up – she will also understand any specific subtasks, language or vocabulary modelled, etc. (And, ideally, she should be a part of setting up the session, see the upcoming article on Recommendation III).

Simply agree with the TA at which times she is responsible for whole-class control, so the teacher can dedicate herself where she is most needed.


Using teams

The Report gives as an example setting up the classroom in such a way that “on day one, the teacher works with one group, the TA with another, and the other groups complete tasks collaboratively or independently.” As the ideal Cooperative Learning classroom is composed of teams anyway, this piece of advice should be present no challenge to schools where this Cooperative Learning is embedded. You know your classes best, however, and bear in mind the above advice about monitoring.

TA with small group.PNG
Image from the EEF Guidance Report. TAs may take the role of a pupil when working with a specific team, to model correct execution of the CLIP to secure its built-in accountability (which will automatically help solve the issue of “TA spoon feeding”), and support SEN-requirements, language and social skills development.


TA & teacher modelling

To further add value to what teachers do, the Report suggests TAs should be a more visible part of teaching during their whole-class delivery. Again, following this best practice advice is no challenge to a classroom where Cooperative Learning is embedded.

Effective Cooperative Learning needs clear modelling of what we expect peer-to-peer engagement to look like, replete with body language, eye contact, specific vocabulary related to both subject content and social skills. While it is sometimes useful to for the teacher or TA to model with a pupil – which has the benefit of disclosing unforeseen misunderstandings – you also run the risk that the child, pinned in front of the class, will struggle to appear clever, rather than have an informed dialogue you’d want to see.

A better alternative is to think about the issues which could arise and run the model interaction with the TA as the partner. I have seen modelling where the TA was giving instructions on how to solve a task, while the teacher was writing directly on the board, using the ruler “wrong,” only to be corrected with very precise and respectful language, e.g. “You are very precise in your measurement, only you need to put it on the X-axis first, Ms Harrison. That there is the Y-axis. Wonderful. Good Job. So, where do we put the dot?”


And… TAs on their own

As anyone who has tried it out will confirm, most Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns is quite simple, and actually become easier and easier to stage as staff and pupils gain more experience.

This means that most TA will be able to set up and run basic Cooperative Learning activities (as agreed with the teacher, of course) setting the teacher free to do other things, such as crisis handling.

We will get to the issues of TAs using Cooperative Learning in interventions in the following posts.

Next up: Recommendation III:

EEF Recommendation III header


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werdelin.co.uk is the business end of cooperativelearning.works.

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