I’m pleased to report that I have passed my latest MEd module! This module involved writing a proposal for a collaborative professional enquiry to be carried out in August/September 2011. I don’t feel able to share the whole proposal on here (and I’m not sure you’d want to read it all!), so I thought I would extract a few edited excerpts to give you the drift…
There is an increasing expectation on teachers that the young people in their classes will be engaged in their own learning. These expectations are set by schools, national policies and increasingly by the young people themselves. For many teachers achieving learner engagement within the confines of a curriculum still poses a major challenge. The aim of this enquiry is to investigate whether involving pupils in the process of planning their learning can provide an opportunity for them to become more engaged. This will be carried out by a group of teachers from different curricular areas working with S1 pupils from August 2011. The teachers will start a topic of learning differently by asking the pupils for their ideas on what and how they will learn.
What’s the rationale?
The aim of this enquiry is to improve pupil engagement in lessons through involving them in planning learning experiences.
My interest in involving pupils in planning learning experiences arose initially from an evaluation of my practice against policies outlined as part of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Early in 2009 I became increasingly enthusiastic to begin to make changes to my practice as a result of the momentum behind CfE. However, at the time I was struck by the lack of clear support and guidance for teachers as to what it was we were to change.
At this time the most current policy document available was ‘Building the Curriculum 3: A framework for learning and teaching’ (Scottish Government 2008). There were numerous possible areas for development of my practice arising from the text, however there was one in particular which I felt was largely absent from my classroom. This is summarised as:
“all learners should be involved in planning and reflecting on their own learning”
(Scottish Government 2008, p.27)
I felt that this was not common practice in my classroom and so I decided to make this my focus. I had also already noticed that the learners in my classroom, at all stages, had become heavily reliant on me and had little ownership of their own learning and assessment. I realised that although this reliance resulted in efficient coverage of the content it did not ensure that the pupils were developing the understanding or skills one would expect of young people working towards the four capacities which serve as the purpose of CfE (Scottish Government 2008, p.22).
As a result I decided to radically alter my approach to planning for one of my S1 biology classes for the remainder of that session. I tried to involve them in the process by asking them to plan the content, activities, assessment and success criteria for a topic. I shared and reflected upon this process on my blog, which I use as an electronic learning journal (Kelly 2009). I was overwhelmed at the time by the impact this change in approach had with the pupils in the class, and amongst those in the profession who read my blog. I intend to develop and expand this approach through this collaborative professional enquiry.
It is the purpose of this enquiry to investigate the impact involving pupils in planning learning can have on their engagement in the process, and ultimately on their learning. My intention is to carry out this enquiry with a small group of teachers from a variety of curricular areas which I believe will have a substantial benefit to their professional development as well as my own.
What’s the context?
As already stated, CfE clearly sets out the need to involve learners in their learning in ‘Building the Curriculum 3’ (Scottish Government 2008, p.27). This message has since been reinforced by subsequent policy documents (Learning & Teaching Scotland 2009, p.13; Scottish Government 2010, p.19), including an explicit emphasis on engaging and involving learners in approaches to assessment as the top priority in the recent summary of ‘Building the Curriculum 5’ (Learning & Teaching Scotland 2010, p.4). The concept of involving pupils in decisions regarding their learning pre-dates CfE in policy terms given that this was one of the principles underpinning ‘Assessment is for Learning’ (Scottish Executive 2005, p.2). Much of this policy is based upon formative assessment literature, which also identifies the need to take risks and “relinquish control” (Clarke 2005, p.12). However, despite the successes of ‘Assessment is for Learning’ HM Inspectorate of Education in Scotland still stated that one of the areas for improvement for secondary schools as:
“Engaging all young people actively in learning, giving each a sense of personal responsibility for their own learning and encouraging them to think independently and creatively.” (HM Inspectorate of Education 2009, p.46)
This resonates with my own experience also. Whilst many secondary teachers, including myself, have begun to use some of the techniques associated with formative assessment very few have gone so far as to involve learners in the process to the extent that they have genuine responsibility for the learning taking place in classrooms.
In addition to policy encouraging the involvement of pupils in the learning process, there are others who promote this approach also. In fact, this view of pedagogy is not a new one. Paulo Freire explains the need for a shift in education through teachers and students who “become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (Freire 1970, p.61). Head (2003) uses a social constructivist view of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development to explain the effectiveness of collaboration in learning. Based on this he argues for the creation of communities of learners where “teacher and pupils agree on areas and themes for research within an overall context” (Head 2003, p.59).
More recently, Guy Claxton (2008) uses what we know about learning to suggest that if we want our pupils to be “powerful learners” we need to provide them with opportunities to be “creative”, have “courage”, “explore and investigate”, “experiment”, have “imagination”, “reason”, be “social” and “reflective” (Claxton 2008, p.122-126) all of which could be provided by giving them greater responsibility for their learning.
Whilst there are many others who also make this case for a greater involvement for learners in their learning (Hopkins 2000; Rudduck 2003; Higgins et al 2008), not everyone agrees. Johnson (2004) thoroughly criticises the concept of “Personalised Learning” as put forward by the UK Government of the time. I feel that he starts with the extreme assumption that personalised learning means that every child is following a completely different curriculum from each other, which I do not envisage being the case. I intend to involve learners in the planning process, but only allow personalisation and choice at the individual level where it is practically possible. Skinner (2010) is critical of another aspect of this pedagogy. He suggests that “constructivism ignores much normal learning, disparages direct teaching and fails to match schooling realities” and goes on to suggest that teachers and learners need to develop the skills required in what he describes as the “four modes” of learning (Skinner 2010, p.23). I think that Skinner has a point when he suggests that we should not rely on one approach to learning due to the complex nature of learning, but also due to the reality of secondary schools in the current context. There is a danger that teachers and pupils may see this proposal as being unrealistic and unsustainable and so I intend to bear these messages in mind when developing this enquiry.
Assuming we do want to give pupils greater responsibility for the learning process, how could this be achieved in practice? Given the title, one would expect that John Loughran’s (2010) recent book might provide some ideas. However, whilst he does make a strong case for giving students responsibility for their own learning (Loughran 2010, p.49) much of the remainder of the book is still very teacher-centred. Surprisingly, when describing the strategies required of learners to develop their metacognitive skills of “planning, monitoring and evaluating” he still discusses the use of these strategies in the context of completing “a set task” (Loughran 2010, p.143). In my experience, supporting pupils to develop these skills within a set task is not new and has limited success. This enquiry is interested in the extent to which young people can become involved in setting the task in the first place.
Chris Watkins (2005) makes the case for developing what he describes as “classrooms as learning communities” and gives some ideas as to how to achieve this in practice. Again, Watkins (2005) develops his case from the standpoint of social constructivism, or as he simplifies it “learning = building knowledge through doing things with others” (Watkins 2005, p.17) but in his book, he goes on to suggest possible approaches to achieving this, including:
“it is possible to consider how pupils might make classroom choices on:
- what they learn;
- how they learn;
- how well they learn;
- why they learn.
And on each of these dimensions there could be more or less significant choices made.”
(Watkins 2005, p.76-77)
This list bears a striking, and coincidental, similarity to the opportunities I provided with my S1 biology class in 2009 when I asked them to contribute to the planning of “content, activities, assessment and success criteria”. I intend to use these overlapping lists of areas for pupil choice when developing this intervention. The topic will be set by the teacher in each case, but pupils will have opportunities to contribute to these dimensions within the set topic. For the purposes of this proposal, this is what I mean by “planning learning experiences”.
What, however is meant by learner engagement? Harris (2010) provides a very useful account of student engagement. She classifies two types of student engagement: engagement in schooling and engagement in learning (Harris 2010). Harris argues that much of the literature on student engagement, such as the 2003 OECD report (Willms 2003), focuses on behavioural engagement. She goes on to point out that if we are interested in improvements in student learning we should be focusing instead on cognitive engagement. As a result of her work with secondary teachers Harris (2010) has a developed a continuum of engagement with associated approaches to achieving these levels of engagement. I have summarised these in Table 1 below:
Table 1: Continuum of Learner Engagement (What) and how teachers
can achieve these levels of engagement (How). Adapted from Harris (2010).
I have found this continuum to be useful and as such this is what I mean by “Learner Engagement” or the purposes of this proposal.
What will be different?
In order to involve pupils in the planning process, it is necessary for teachers to begin a topic of learning differently. Rather than informing the pupils of the title of the topic and proceeding with their plan, instead pupils are led through a process which supports them to contribute their own ideas. It is envisaged that this planning phase will last for approximately two one-hour lessons with the following structure:
Setting the scene. Stimulating images and questions are displayed to generate discussion as a class surrounding the area of learning to be covered in the topic.
What do we know already? Pupils work in groups to complete an activity designed to draw out what they already know about this topic.
Homework. Between the two lessons pupils are set the task of listing the questions they would expect to be answered through this topic.
Explaining the task. Teacher explains to the class that the purpose of the lesson is for each group to draw up a plan for the topic, which will be amalgamated by the teacher. It is crucial that at this point the teacher clarifies that there will only be one plan for the whole class, and the final decision for what takes place rests with the teacher.
Linking to the Curriculum. The teacher shares the chosen experiences and outcomes which this topic should address with the class. The experiences and outcomes can be modified and rewritten to make them accessible to the pupils.
Planning the topic. Each group is given a large sheet of paper and tasked with using what they already know, the questions they wrote for homework and the experiences and outcomes to produce a plan for the topic under the following headings:
- What is the title of your topic?
- Why should we learn about this?
- What do you already know about this topic?
- Which questions do you intend to explore?
- How will you go about exploring these questions week by week?
- What skills do you think you will develop through this topic?
- How will you share what you have learnt from this topic?
- What will be the criteria for success?
This lesson concludes with each group attaching their plan to the wall and the teacher beginning to formulate a joint plan through whole class discussion.
How will the enquiry be evaluated?
Through this enquiry I intend to answer three interrelated questions. These enquiry questions are:
- Can pupils become more involved in planning their own learning?
- Can pupil involvement in planning learning increase engagement in lessons?
- Can pupil involvement in planning learning improve learning outcomes?
I hope to carry out a baseline “Learning Survey” in January 2011 electronically with the current S1 pupils at the school, and also amongst the P7 pupils in the cluster primary schools. This survey is adapted from Watkins (2005) and is intended to gauge the extent to which pupils feel in charge of their learning. I intend to use this information for two purposes. Firstly, this will inform the direction of the intervention as the scores will indicate whether pupils currently feel ownership of their learning or not, and should therefore provide some justification for the enquiry and assist in the recruitment of colleagues to the group. However, I also intend to use these results as a baseline to which I can compare the pupils involved in the enquiry. By carrying out this same survey with the pupils in the classes involved at the end of the intervention, I will be to evaluate whether the pupils now feel that they have a greater sense of ownership over their learning compared with their own cohort, and compared to the previous S1 cohort. This will assist in the answering of the first of my enquiry questions.
In addition to the results from this survey, I will also be able to gauge the extent to which pupils can become involved in planning their learning through the items produced as part of the planning process. By comparing the plan which the classes followed to the teacher’s plan from the previous year, and the group work from lesson two, it should be possible to determine the extent to which the learning experiences changed from the previous year and how much of this was a result of the pupils’ ideas. I expect that these changes will also be highlighted by the teachers themselves when we meet to discuss the intervention at it the end of the topic. I also intend to develop a topic evaluation for the pupils to complete in conjunction with the other teachers in the group. This is relatively common practice in the school already, but I will need to ensure that the evaluations used in this topic are relevant to the enquiry questions. For example, most evaluations used in the school currently do not make reference to pupil involvement or engagement, so questions will need to be developed accordingly in conjunction with the other teachers.
Given the complexity of involving learners in planning and evaluating pupil engagement, I also intend to carry out semi-structured interviews with a sample of pupils from each of the classes involved. Burton & Bartlett (2005, p.109) suggest that less structured interviews are useful when the emphasis is on the respondent’s own account which is exactly what I hope to achieve through these interviews. The learning survey described above is heavily structured and quite limiting in terms of allowing pupils the scope to express their own thoughts on the process, which I hope to address through these interviews. I intend to ask the teachers to identify three pupils from their class to be interviewed – the three should represent the range of opinions and involvement in the class where possible. I would welcome the teachers to carry out the interviews themselves, but will offer to do them to reduce the burden on their time. I intend to interview and record the pupils in these groups of three rather than individually. This is based on my own experience of a prior intervention in which I interviewed three pupils separately. I found as a result that the pupils often struggled to communicate their thoughts, particularly on those complex issues which have led me to choose to interview them. I quite often found myself ‘leading’ these interviews much more than I intended. It is hoped that by interviewing them in groups they will stimulate each other to express their thoughts. I intend to use the outcomes from this interview to answer all three of the enquiry questions and will semi-structure the interviews around these very questions.
In order to assess the level of engagement achieved through this intervention I intend to classify the responses from the teachers and pupils involved against Harris’ (2010) continuum of learner engagement.
In addition to the pupil evaluations and interviews already discussed, further evidence will be required in order to address the third enquiry question. In order to assess whether the pupils’ learning outcomes have been improved through the intervention it will be necessary to gather the assessment items from the topic and compare them to the previous year. I do not intend to ask the teachers to administer the same assessment which they used the previous year as this would not be appropriate given that the pupils need to have a say in how they are to be assessed. A comparison between the two years will therefore naturally be limited. I will therefore be reliant on the professional judgements of the teachers to assess any improvements in learning outcomes which they feel have resulted through the intervention. I intend to gather these judgements when we meet as a group at the end of the enquiry.
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