The seminal EEF Guidance Report Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants point out the often-unrealised negative impact of many TAs on attainment. This series of articles explores how one MAT uses Cooperative Learning to operationalise the seven recommendations found in that report.
On their dedicated page, the Education Endowment Foundation introduces the topic of teaching assistants thus:
“380,000 teaching assistants (TAs) are employed across the country, at an annual public cost of some £5 billion, but previous research had shown that in many schools (…) for students from poorer backgrounds the impact of TAs was too often negative. “(Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants).
To drive the point home, TAs cost ¼ of an average school budget, TAs are present in most classes, and, furthermore, often handle interventions with vulnerable SEN and PPG pupils who have a disproportionate impact on results. In small schools, a bad day for a certain child during those fateful hours of SATs may spell doom.
Fortunately, the text continues:
“However, EEF trials have demonstrated that, when they are well-trained and used in structured settings with high-quality support and training, TAs can make a noticeable positive impact on pupil learning.”
Much to their credit, Evolution Academy Trust of Norfolk have been among the first MATs to give this issue their undivided attention, putting money towards professional staff surveys and following up with tailored training to turn the recommendations of the EEF research into cost-effective practice that will increase staff engagement and outcomes for children.
This is, of course, where Cooperative Learning comes in.
Before we investigate the Cooperative Learning angle, this is a brief summary of the seven recommendations. Items I-IV cover class room context, V-VI cover out-of-class interventions, VII discusses the connection between the two.
I. TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low-attaining pupils. Systematic review of the roles of both teachers and TAs is needed.
II. TAs should add value to what teachers do, not replace them. If TAs do have a direct instructional role it is recommended that these interventions supplement the teacher and are kept brief, intensive, and structured (see V).
III. TAs should help pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning, e.g. concentrate on helping pupils develop ownership of tasks, rather than task completion.
IV. TAs should be fully prepared for their role in the classroom by providing sufficient time for TA training and for teachers and TAs to meet out of class to enable the necessary lesson preparation and feedback.
V. TAs should deliver high-quality one-to-one and small group support using structured interventions. (This is where we find a consistent impact on attainment of up to four additional months’ progress).
VI. Adopt evidence-based interventions to support TAs in their small group and one-to-one instruction. As a minimum, sessions should be brief, by TAs who are professionally trained, follow a plan with clear objectives, include real-time assessment, and connections should be made between the intervention and classroom teaching.
VII. Ensure explicit connections are made between learning from everyday classroom teaching and structured interventions.
– TA’s brainstorm output, Costessey Junior School, Evolution Academy Trust, 13 July 2017.
As can be garnered from the above quote, much to their credit, our TAs raised all of the seven points ad verbatim during the opening brainstorm. It was impossible not to remark that the EEF might have saved all that time and money invested in education’s top PhDs by simply asking the TAs what they thought might be a good idea. Alas…
The concern that TAs might not only not improve outcomes, or even decrease them, is not actually new. In 2009, a government-funded study by the IoE was headlined “Pupils receiving help ‘do worse'” by the BBC. Given that the average school shelves out a quarter of their often desperate budgets on TAs and the ever increasing focus on measurable results, one would think that everything else would be put on hold until the issue was resolved.
Added to the obvious problem of investment-vs-outcome are the “soft” issues of TAs often feeling disenfranchised, undervalued or downright abused, or, adversely, are so much a part of the current school fabric that any changes their roles and responsibilities is met with passive obstruction. In some extreme cases, they actively undermine teachers:
“I’ve had several TAs like this – worst when they have a colleague in the room and they can exchange “eye rolling” glances at each other whilst you are teaching!”
– Anonymous teacher, TES Forum thread, Please help…problems with teaching assistant, 2010.
It is a strange balance, as there seems to be a tacit understanding they can get away with almost anything, including scuttling outcomes, because they are straddled with the pupils and the work no-one else wants to touch – at an absolute minimum wage. There is little wonder some feel undervalued.
Assuming Corbyn fails to pull the brakes on the neoliberal orthodoxy, the next government step will likely be to fire all teaching assistants, UK wide, and throw the £5 billion they currently cost English schools at trained teachers.
To put this into perspective, three antagonistic TAs who scupper school improvement cost as much as a fully qualified teacher or SEN specialist who might, for example, be used to halve the number of pupils in a difficult class, making dedicated TAs irrelevant.
However, the negative impact on the school community in itself would make any headteacher think twice before pulling the trigger on something so radical. Fortunately, the EEF Guidance notes that recent findings indicate TAs may add 3-4 months to pupils’ yearly progress – if given proper training and support.
In summary, school leaders who want fast, high-impact improvement using their current resources need to look no further than their Teaching Assistants. Enter Evolution Academy Trust, Norfolk.
Aside from the impact on TAs, adopting Cooperative Learning as a Trust-wide approach presents MATs with a cost-effective, DfE/EEF-recommended, and legally compliant way to spend its ample pupil premium funds on benefiting every child with 5-8 months of progress per pupil per year. (This is Cooperative Learning on its own, without the 3-4 months of additional progress noted above).
Some key considerations:
With a view to increase understanding of TAs own perceptions of their role, and to empower them to improve outcomes, I was requested by Mr Tony Hull, CEO of Evolution Academy Trust, to tailor and present four Cooperative Learning sessions to TAs in July 2017 under the title “The Real Value of TAs.” I was then further to consider the implications of evidence gathered in these sessions for a Cooperative Learning programme to support the seven EEF recommendations for the MAT’s seven schools.The objectives of these events were:
All slides and handouts were tailored and branded for the event, and effort was expended to ensuring a light-hearted, enjoyable ethos. Each session fielded up to six tables of TAs.
Each session ended with delegates giving rated responses to three questions and providing comments on an anonymous feedback sheet. 77% of attendees’ responses were either positive or very positive about the events, which unveiled the vast majority of EAT TAs as a very valuable potential resource who feel they should be appreciated, and who are eager to bring their ideas and skills to bear.
Given that TAs are sometimes “a notoriously difficult bunch,” as one headteacher once confided to me during a lesson observation, 77% positive feedback was a great deal higher than expected.
Leaving TAs to flounder – or, worse, to actively impair teaching and learning – is likely a significant contributing factor to poor outcomes in any school. As TAs consume as much as a quarter of school budgets, including PPG, ensuring their positive impact on attainment is an obligation for responsible leadership.
The following installments of this article will explain how Cooperative Learning cheaply and effectively may be used to operationalise each of the seven EEF recommendations in turn.
For schools considering Cooperative Learning, following this thread is a must, as I am currently dedicating TA training elements into all standard CPD courses at no further cost.
Get notifications of related posts on Twitter
It was a pleasure to attend yesterday’s Association of Science Education’s London and Essex Summer Conference “Supporting Learning for all in Science” at the Institute of Education, London. For someone like me, whose method deliberately targets achievement gaps, the title alone made coming irresistible.
A special thank you to Sheila of ASE, who virtually singlehandedly made it all happen, and to everyone who took interest in my impromptu stall. You should now all have received a welcome mail to COGS.
Due to the content void nature of Cooperative Learning, though specific examples here are taken straight from STEM KS3+, the theory connecting CL with questioning techniques, and the cooperative activities themselves, benefit equally in any subject and key stage. You will also discover what a milk float is.
Questions in Context
I know Dr Lyn Hayes, who invited me to the conference, from our work with the INSPIRE STEM PGCE training programme at Imperial College in January. I have previously explored the relationship between Cooperative Learning and STEM with Ben Rogers at the 2016 Annual ASE Conference at Birmingham University, where we presented the course Great Reading, Great Learning, and lately with Math leads in Leicester for SDSA, where the enhancement of Singapore Maths through Cooperative Learning was made very clear by delegates themselves. (More information here).
At yesterday’s conference, I prioritised “Developing good questions for STEM learning” with Mary Whitehouse of University of York Science Education Group and “The Language of Mathematics in Science” with Richard Boohan & Roni Malek. The regular reader of this blog will recognise the obvious connection to my planned work with Mrs Hennah on oracy skills in science.
My final top choice was unfortunately cancelled; as I am involved in a Strategic Funding Bid to close gender gaps in Maths, another of my top workshop choices from the programme was “Improving Gender Balance” with Nicky Thomas from the Institute of Physics. Hopefully next time?
Cooperative Learning & Questions
Mary Whitehouse (@MaryUYSEG) opened her keynote with the seemingly ubiquitous reference to Hattie’s research on effect size, recapping the impact of assessment (0.46), spaced practice (0.71) and feedback to the teacher (0.73) – all of which, as followers of this blog will know, are integral (assessment and feedback) or easily facilitated (spaced practice) by Cooperative Learning.
Specifically, I was very happy with her quote from Hattie: “Structuring class sessions to entice, teach and listen to students asking questions to students is very powerful.” If that is not a description of Cooperative Learning and three of its main outcomes, it’s not Cooperative Learning. I will attempt to exemplify in the following commentary on Whitehouse’s workshop.
Why asking the right questions is crucial should hopefully be something all teachers are aware of; what is less obvious perhaps is the support Cooperative Learning offers in situations where questions are poor or just plain intermediate in quality – which may well be the majority of questions in the average lessons.
First of all, if you cannot have quality, you can always have quantity. The simultaneous engagement with your questions by every single pupil in the classroom, and the stacking afforded by such basic Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns as Think-Pair-Share (discussed below), means any ‘less good’ question will be dressed up in peer-to-peer feedback and support and automatic differentiation through negotiation. (Who knows, you might get lucky and get the metacognitive comment “I think this question is stupid, because…”).
Also, since every single pupil is presenting their understanding, the assessment element is very strong. So, while the poor question posited might only have half the effect of a good question in the same cooperative activity, it still has a substantially higher impact than that question asked from the board and discussed with a lower ability pupil who is off on a tangent, while the rest of the class of 32 pupils nod off (Dare we say 3100% higher impact, mathematicians?).
Vice versa, good questions enhance Cooperative Learning dramatically. Because Cooperative Learning is nothing but a precise, surgical delivery tool for your input, the more powerful the input, the more powerful the impact. And, again, assessment is improved in correspondence with the quality of the questions asked.
So, with no further ado, onto Mary Whitehouse’s presentation “Developing good questions for STEM learning”.
Mary and the Word
There are many benefits to making up questions, not least the fact that it forces teachers to think about which outcome they want and helps crystallise it. Specifically, Mary pointed out that looking closely at which answers your question might elicit is a good measure of the quality of your question in reference to you learning objective.
As we mentioned in the last of the articles on Stalham Academy, you can stage and execute a perfect cooperative activity which has absolutely no value to the objectives of the lesson. One of the ways this can happen is precisely the question you pick for the Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern, whether it be a Think-Pair-Share or Boss & Secretary. It is akin to a doctor who performs his surgery perfectly but on the wrong organ.
Among the things one should also be wary of when writing questions is whether any additional context is needed. Mary had some of us chuckling when she gave the example of pupils with a Chinese background responding to an exam question starting with the words “The batteries in the milk float are…” I chuckled somewhat less than others, as I , poor foreigner that I am, didn’t know what a milk float is. (She suggested trying “electric car” instead).
Finally, and especially in the case of multiple choice questions, ask yourself if pupils could get the correct answer for the wrong reason – such as luck or misunderstanding?
The good multiple choice question
As Mary pointed out, understanding the purpose of your question is the key to success. For example, “diagnostic questions” test pupils’ understanding to better guide teaching. If a Y7 teacher automatically assumes her new pupils can distinguish “force” and “energy” a whole world of mess opens up. Multiple-choice is a very simple, and easily assessable, way of checking precise understanding of concepts (We have already discussed closed vs open questions).
Here, Mary demonstrated an alternative, collaborative, way to present multiple-choice questions which really struck a chord with me. One of the main reasons Cooperative Learning yields 5 to 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year is the feedback element: Opening discussions between pupils give teachers insight into the thinking process that produces the wrong answers. As any teacher will be aware, there is often a weird logic behind pupils’ misconceptions that need to be recognised before it can be challenged appropriately. An unfortunate example is found in the next instalment of this when we get to “Confidence Grids.”
The following item was developed to show how GCSE exam questions can be converted into diagnostic questions: The words in the speech bubbles are based on information from the OCR GCSE mark scheme and the examiner’s report:
The question is: “How can very high temperature lead to death?”
By referring to the examiner’s report, you are sure the wrong answers are common misconceptions that you need to weed out.
Getting more out of it with Cooperative Learning
Now, it is entirely possible to present this task on individual pieces of paper, give them a couple of minutes to think and tick the ones they agree with and collect the evidence, but Mary’s point was obviously that one should use this in group work.
However, there is group work and there is Cooperative Learning. Group work risks loss of accountability, equal participation, off-task behaviour, etc. as discussed in multiple previous posts.
Therefore, in the following, I want to demonstrate the benefit of dropping this IWB task into a tightly timed Think-Pair-Share (e.g. one minute to Think, two minutes to Pair and three minutes to Share). With an enforced written element delineated at each stage in the form of “I/my partner and I/our team think X is correct/incorrect, because…”, you achieve the following:
And as Mary pointed out, student work is a great resource to acquire further inspiration for questions.
(For schools who have been through my CPD: We have discussed the cons and pros of Think-Pair-Share vs Meet-in-the-Middle. Both could be used here, but the benefit of that extra layer the pair element gives before they come together I think is a case for TPS. Again, you know you objectives, students and materials best. Cooperative Learning must never be a straitjacket).
Disclaimer: This articles represents my own limited understanding of Mary Whitehouse’s workshop, and does not claim to include all elements or accurately reflect her presentation.
Working with Viscount Nelson Education Network, I am presenting Introduction to Cooperative Learning on the 14th July.
I am very proud of being accepted as a trusted VNET partner. I am especially happy about VNET’s minimal staff and commitment to independence and empowerment of schools through bespoke programmes that reflect their needs, which express my own take on school improvement.
As a partner, I have therefore agreed on an enhanced pricing model for VNET Schools. We are also offering opportunities to develop bespoke packages across multiple VNET Schools. All part of the benefit of being part of the VNET Network!
Title: An Introduction to Cooperative Learning Hands-on Workshop
Date: 14th July 8:30 am – 10:30 am
Place: Information Suite, VNET offices
South Green Park, Mattishall
NR20 3JY (map)
Booking: To book your place, please email email@example.com asap. This session is limited to a maximum of 12 Headteachers on a first come first served basis, and is provided as part of VNET Membership.
* * *
Andy Tharby’s article neatly explains my own motives for promoting closed questions – they provide the exactitude which is the foundation for higher level thinking and they mirror the precision that is a hallmark of Cooperative Learning.
A colleague and I were discussing my ideas for an article on open vs. closed questions in the context of Cooperative Learning, when I innocently mentioned @atharby‘s post Closed-question quizzing – unfashionable yet effective as a source of inspiration. His response: How could I champion Cooperative Learning and endorse Mr Tharby’s reactionary views?
Safely home, I revisited the post to see if I had overlooked something. No, it was as I remembered it; well-written with self-depreciating humour, references to research, final endorsement of open questions in correct context – basically classroom practice of Bloom’s taxonomy.
So, is it ‘reactionary’ to view closed questions as “a really quite wonderful thing” and share a personal experience that “lists of closed-questions … are amongst the most dependable and useful of everyday resources”?
Or is it rather, as Tharby himself asks, “stating the bleedin’ obvious”? The following hopefully demonstrates that Cooperative Learning makes that discussion obsolete.
Before proceeding, please note: while all the poorly executed drawings are from my own hand, the cool character design and sleek style is carbon copied from @jasonramasami‘s original illustration featured in Tharby’s article:
[ And, please do familiarise yourself with the key before continuing ]
Open questions: On the dangers of arming blind people with scatterguns in enclosed spaces
Because, when you ask open questions and expect pupils to acquire your target (the red bullseye) without first delineating relevant vocabulary, concepts and context, this is likely to happen:
In case you are wondering, the guy with the arrow in his behind is the teacher.
Because children often lack the vocabulary and reference frameworks that adults take for granted, higher order thinking – let alone “enquiry-based learning” – requires preparation by the teacher. Taking the original article’s reference to Ted Hughes’ poem Bayonet Charge as an example: As a 40+ adult, I intuit just from the title that we are are dealing with a World War One poem – and up pop associated experiences of reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a teenager and of flickering black & white images of soldiers going “over the top.”
However, for children in the today’s classroom, “over the top” would likely refer to a detested classmate’s latest hair-do and the very word combination Bayonet and Charge might have no time-space associations at all; It seems the GCSE Bitesize commentary on the poem assumes they don’t even know what a bayonet is (“…long knives attached to the end of their rifles,” apparently).
How open questions open achievement gaps
Furthermore, who stands to benefit most from open questions? Child A, whose home is full of books and whose parents converse with him over dinner? Or Child B, who is fortunate to chance upon a red-top newspaper used to wrap cheap fish & chips and whose single mother’s longest sentence on record is “Go pick up some fags, yeah!” Now imagine that sentence is presented in Urdu or Polish because Mum doesn’t speak English.
So while Child A’s reply to the juicy open question “How do you think the soldier in the poem Bayonet Charge feels and why?” might be “I think he feels like a cog in a machine, because it mentions him being ‘a hand’ in a ‘cold clockwork,'” you are lucky to get “Dunno” from Child B.
Tharby neatly sums up the above in relation to reading comprehension: “Any densely-packed piece of writing (…) presents a problem. Many children will scan the words but fail to digest the finer nuances of meaning. Closed questions encourage close reading and also allow us to guide students towards the key information.”
The problem with open questions is further exacerbated by discussing them in a full-class plenary where you engage in a five-minute exciting dialogue with Prodigy Child A, while Child B (and everyone else) quietly drifts off. However, refraining from giving Child A the opportunity to explain and explore his thoughts by sticking with closed questions just to engage Child Bs is equally unfair. Ah, the conundrum of differentiation!
Fortunately, replacing that five minute plenary with a CLIP like Catch1Partner in a class of 30 secures a total of two-plus hours worth of differentiated learning opportunities for every single child, regardless of background.
But first things first.
Closed questions, closed gaps
The reason I initially caught onto Tharby’s article was that he so neatly explained my own motives for promoting closed questions – they provide the exactitude which is the foundation for higher level thinking and debating and they nicely mirror the precision that is a hallmark of Cooperative Learning.
Yet, with Cooperative Learning even a closed question may open an opportunity for differentiated higher level thinking and language acquisition through mixed-ability peer learning, as demonstrated below.
Remember that Cooperative Learning should not increase your workload or require special materials, so I am going to use an original quiz sheet Tharby has used with Bayonet Charge. Here are the first three questions:
1. What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?
2. Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?
3. What is coming from ‘a green hedge’?
We will look at variations in tasks and materials ([questions]) at the end of this article, but here are instructions for one sample Cooperative Learning activity (Fig. I):
“The objective is to compare your answers and investigate differences. When I say “Go!” you are going to grab your [questions], poems and a pen, stand up, find a partner and ask your question (Fig. II). Let him explain his answer. If he can’t answer, or you disagree, support him and guide him by identifying where you think he has gone wrong (Fig. III).
Note in Fig. III how the sneaky teacher is carefully listening in.
Sample discussion Child A and B
A: “My question is: “What was the soldier doing just before the poem started?”
B: Wait, I am reading…. It doesn’t say, innit!? (Fig. II)
A: “Read the first line to me…”
B: “Sudd… Sudden …. Suddenly he awoke and was … was run … running…”
A: “What does ‘awoke’ mean?”
B: “Oi, he must have been sleeping!”
A: Got it! Well, done, you!” (Fig. IV)
Now, the pair of them swap roles (Fig. IV-VI) before bidding farewell and finding new partners (Remember this is happening in 15 pairs across the class). If you choose to have single [questions] on individual cards, have them swap those cards to distribute learning.
All the while, you notice the sneaky teacher is pulling out and preparing his open questions (Fig. V-VI) based on his unobtrusive monitoring. It is instant Feedback giving 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year, straight out of the Teaching & Learning Toolkit.
Sample discussion B and A
B: “Ok, my turn: My question is …uhm …: “Which ‘r’ is repeated in the 1st and 2nd lines?”
A: “Well, obviously ‘raw’ is repeated: ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw… In raw-seamed hot khaki…'”
B; “Yeah, you are right. Why two times, though? Why be’s poems so hard, innit?!”
A: “Well, repetition makes you notice that word and it connect ideas. The first ‘raw’ is himself, the second raw describes … hot khaki. Weird. Khaki’s a colour.”
B: “No, it’s be’s a uniform. I plays “Ghost Recon” on my bruv’s PS4. We always wear khaki, like.”
A: Ah, because khaki is the colour of the uniform! … ok. Thanks for helping me with that one.
B: No sweat….’raw’… ok.
Once the basics are covered with closed questions, the more high-level objectives can then be engaged with open questions, again in pairs. As before, the teacher models the relevant language, behaviours for learning, specific vocabulary. etc. (Fig. VII).
And, as before, students support each other (Fig. VIII).
Now bear in mind that you can vary this endlessly to suit your specific needs:
You don’t even have to get them out of their chairs. The same principles apply in a Think-Pair-Share: Read the poem, Think, and answer the questions; Pair up and discuss; take it to the next, open, level in Share.
The point is that with Cooperative Learning, you can close achievement gaps and get more teaching and learning out of your current list of closed questions – in preperation for open questions, of course.
NB: The sample conversations are between higher and lower ability pupils. When two lower ability pupils meet, it is a different story, yet collaborating on a closed question brings poem analysis within range of even your most struggling child. And if you run with a basic Catch1Partner with materials, where they swap question cards, every pupil will have the option to discuss an answer twice – first when he is questioned and takes that card, then again when he elicits an answer from the next partner.
Some related articles:
Mr Tharnby’s work has been quoted before in:
More on vocabulary:
On unobtrusive monitoring:
On closing achievment gaps:
And Jason’s site saamvisual.com/school is well worth a visit.
This is the second themed recording from the webinar Special Measures to Top-500 with Cooperative Learning.
The first part introduced context – definitions of Cooperative Learning, related research, the EEF Toolkit & Pupil Premium, and more.
In this second part. Andrew Howard, then acting head, describes step-by-step how Stalham Academy reached the top with happy pupils, teachers, and parents. Cooperative Learning is essentially about ownership – for pupils to gradually become independent of their teachers, for schools to become independent of consultancy as quickly as possible.
This is where the meat is.
– Andrew Howard, Webinar Special Measures to Top-500. March 27, 2017.
CLIPs – Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns Andrew define in a practical way how learners interact with materials and each other to achieve various objectives, giving full control of the learning process. More on werdelin.co.uk.
Read a detailed article on these lessons, written after a parent’s meeting in 2015 Cooperative Learning; a model lesson across all subjects
Read the four articles for Senior Leadership: Stalham Academy, What went Right?
* * *
Get notifications on Twitter.
One of the reasons why Cooperative Learning yields mind-boggling results is because it solves a lot of those tiresome conundrums that drive teachers nuts.
I got inspired to write this post by Carl Hendrick’s (@C_Hendrick) well-researched and well-referenced piece Five Things I Wish I knew When I started Teaching. Please visit his original post for elaboration on each point.
Most teachers recognise these five as among the contentious classics. (As bocks1 comments on the post: “Worth remembering these work both ways too…”) However, the point here is not who is right, but how Cooperative Learning might present a practical solution that helps get around the argument entirely.
1. Motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation.
With Cooperative Learning, there is no “causal arrow” here which can potentially point the wrong way. Rather, motivation and achievement are fused. Think of the Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern Catch1Partner where pupils with flashcards get out of their seats, join partners, ask, hint, explain and answer questions, and then swap cards before repeating the process with a new partner.
There is movement, social interaction, the excitement of changing partners, the adrenaline of getting it right, the safety of being wrong in front of one person only, and then the victory of having the answer when you meet your next partner, and being able to hint and explain, especially for lower ability pupils. (And for SEN pupils with autism spectrum disorders there is a rigid, safe structure, aside from other relevant measures).
I often pick Catch1Partner as an example of how to effortlessly motivate children to drill key facts and concepts – which are necessary for achievement in any subject. The high achievement is the result of integrating knowledge into memory through the negotiation of meaning, differentiated examples, and targeted explaining. And obviously, because you get better and better every time that card set is used, the higher achievement leads to ever higher motivation, as, Hendrick rightly points out.
Caveat: It is assumed here that you’re drilling facts which are actually relevant to what is being taught, with an exception to this being revision but that is a different story. (Just remember that you can integrate an endless array of sub-activities, such as demanding they always follow what with the question “So, what else can you tell me about that?” – Thank you for that one, Stalham Academy).
2. Just because they’re engaged doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.
That’s not completely true; e.g. sharing new ways to use four letter words under the cover of “group work” will certainly engage many pupils I could think of. This is precisely the reason Cooperative Learning is not “group work.” The rigid structuring of how pupils interact with each other and the learning materials, paired with limited timing, create a sense of urgency, accountability, and focus, As Matthew snickers in this video, “…there is no room for them to go off task.”
The combination of urgency, accountability, and focus is very difficult to achieve with individual work unless pupils are, as the article points out, beyond the point where the work is challenging. And certainly impossible to achieve with fluffy “group work.”
There is a dry comment to this point by Dan Whittaker that had me laughing: “Great post. Number 2 is the one that jolted me. The title shouldn’t be ‘Five Things I Wish I knew When I started Teaching’ but ‘Five Things I Wish SLTs Knew’.” This is precisely the reason I wrote Get your Head around it about making teaching visible so we can get rid off unhelpful advice such as “ensure pupil engagement” following a lesson observation by the deputy head.
3. Marking and feedback are not the same thing
“The value in marking a piece of work may counterintuitively be of more benefit to the teacher than the student.” I am assuming here that marking means penning into workbooks ticks, crosses, and/or smileys, with a very short comment, for example, “Can you expand on this a bit more?” or “Remember to capitalise your first letter.”
Feedback, on the other hand, from the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit definition:
“Feedback is information given to the learner or teacher about the learner’s performance relative to specific learning goals or outcomes, to redirect or refocus either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome.”
I lifted this bit on “information given to the learner” from my post on feedback from January 2016: “Feedback can “be about the output of the activity, the process of the activity, or the student’s management of their learning.” These three correspond roughly to 1. evaluation of a product, 2. formative assessment and even 3. self-regulation respectively, all of which are ideally suited to Cooperative Learning activities.
“An example during a Y5/6 Catch1Partner – two less able pupils who found each other. When one could not answer the maths problem the other said ‘Shall I give you a clue’ and then proceeded to give a sensible clue so the other child could work out the answer! Amazing given the children in question!”
– Lucy Bates, headteacher, Ormesby Village Junior School, December 2016. More.
4. Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.
From the original article: “… for feedback to be truly meaningful to students, they need to take ownership of it which may well mean not giving levels to a piece of work at all and instead just leaving comments for the student to reflect and act upon.”
I again refer to Feedback strategies & Cooperative Learning.
5. (a) The steps needed to achieve a skill may look very different to the final skill itself.
From the article: “Deliberate practice asserts the benefit of breaking down a global skill into its constituent local parts and focusing on specific feedback and incremental improvement rather than a set of assessment criteria/performance descriptors that are “aimed at some vague overall improvement.””
Because Cooperative Learning puts the onus of learning on the learners, it, unfortunately, puts the onus of teaching on the teacher (Yes, go figure!): Effectiveness hinges upon precise modelling. Forget the guide on the side, et cetera. The key to success is clear step-by-step demonstration of what good practice looks like, replete with exact language and specific vocabulary.
Boss & Secretary (or, more politically correct, Sage-N-Scribe) pops to mind here. Setting up a science experiment: one student reads out the step-by-step process using relevant language, demonstrated by the teacher and scaffolded by relevant materials (but cannot touch the materials), the partner executes the orders, asking clarifying questions, but cannot act without instructions. (There’s life skills for you, right in the science lesson).
Or, converting fractions to decimals, or a past tense sentence into a present tense sentence, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There is almost no skill that cannot be broken down into component parts and said into relevant CLIPs.
5 (b). There is no such thing as developing a ‘general’ skill.
Here, I admit my total bafflement:
“… critical thinking is an essential part of any student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of the curriculum is often meaningless and ineffective. “
This sentence seems to claim it is even possible to teach thinking skills without anchoring them in specific contexts, which is as absurd as an attribute without an essence. I cannot imagine this is what is intended by protagonists of “general” skills. (But I’d be very eager to hear from anyone who can give me a practical example of how this would be done).
Attributes and essences. Cards by Kim, Norwich Primary Academy, 2016.
But, referring back to “So, what else can you tell me?” in Catch1Partner as discussed above, this sub-task would certainly promote thinking and communication skills, which could be described as general. But obviously, the question ties into very specific content, whether the flashcard question was about Roman numerals or a play by Shakespeare.
So, to reiterate, motivation, achievement, thinking skills, practical skills and associated vocabulary (with full differentiation included) – with no extra work or planning on the part of the teacher.
Mrs Naomi Hennah (@MrsHennah) of Northampton School for Boys has created a clear and concise “visual summary of the complexity of chemical discourse” to boost oracy skills and language acquisition in chemistry.
Some related articles
Commenting on the famous Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, this article posits the structural approach as the most effective form of collaborative learning, bar none.
Student-Centred Learning in UK schools; Here be Dragons… Over the past month, I have been reading Mr Peal’s Progressively Worse with disturbed fascination.
Workshop debriefing: As I have states in numerous places, the candid verbalization of opinions during the debate gives teachers a unique insight into the knowledge and thought processes of each individual student as thet work through tasks and materials.
* * *