My action research for the year was to investigate methods in which I can extend the skills of most able learners in my classroom. The class that immediately stood out for me in this regard was my Year 9’s which had quite a few high ability students who were very passive and unmotivated. This was particularly evident in the first data entry I completed on them which could only be described as a sea of red! As a result of this and the general lack of ambition in my class, I decided to focus this action research mainly on this group.
Part of what inspired and developed my ideas of this was the CPD sessions on Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset in school but also through a book that I had been reading entitled ‘Becoming a High Expectation Teacher- Raising the Bar‘ by Christine Rubie Davies*. Rubie- Davies argues that there is a strong correlation between teacher expectation and student achievement. This idea struck a chord with me as at the time my Year 9’s were by far my least favourite class as I just considered them to be lazy. As as result of this, my expectations of them had been lowered and the work they produced was far from what they were actually capable of and thus I had enabled the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ of low achievement that Rubie-Davies talks about in her book. And so, this was one of the first problems I had to overcome: my perception/expectation of the class.
Over the year I have tried a variety of strategies to tackle both my expectation of the students and they student’s expectations of themselves.
Ranking was a firm favourite with 55% of the class and was a particular hit with the high ability students. Ranking involves setting the class an assessment style task every two to three weeks in which they will be ranked on based on effort only. In the following lesson, the students would ideally sit in their rank and complete DIRT on their task.
Initially, it can be seen as quite a harsh method to use in class but if it is used more than once, it can be a potent motivational tool in the classroom. After a few ranking tasks, the students began to see that their hard work and effort would be recognised and rewarded as the moved up tables towards the ‘top table’. They could also see that students that they may have considered to be ‘smarter’ than them very often ended up below them on the rank. It also motivated students who had had a bad day one week, to try even harder the next week and generally all of the students enjoyed the activity.
‘Ranking really helped because if you were low and your friends were at the top, it encouraged you to work hard to get to the middle table and then you could move up and up‘
‘Ranking helped me push myself to try to get to the top. The harsh competition made me work harder‘
‘Ranking pushed me to my limit and made me want to be my very best’
2) The Top 4
As a development of the ranking task, I often created a table of the Top 4 and refused to tell them their place in the rank but inform them that they were in the Top 4 of the class. They then had photocopies of each other’s work and I told them that it was up to them to figure out which of them would be numbers one, two, three and four. Surprisingly the students took this task way more seriously than I had intended and had a very serious discussion weighing up the pros and cons of each piece of work that was way more beneficial than any other piece of peer assessment they had ever done! The students also quite liked this as it created a sense of expertise among them.
‘One of the things that stretched me in class was how we weren’t told who was in the top four. We had to figure it out for ourselves by comparing it to the example. It was nice knowing we were at the top!‘
3) Excellence Notebooks
As a further development of the ranking task, I also created an ‘Excellence Notebook’ to be given to students who consistently displayed 100% effort and excellence in their writing. Instead of re-writing/editing their excellent paragraphs in their normal book, the would re-write it in their Excellence Notebooks so that at the end of the year they had created a bank of outstanding work which they could then show to their parents.
‘The Excellence Notebook helped me with my self-confidence. It made me feel like I had done something really good and made me want to be the best again. It also encouraged me to keep going. Instead of saying ‘I’m the best, I can stop now’ it encouraged me to carry on.’
4) DIRT and Checklists
DIRT again is strongly linked with the ranking. Generally, if a student did well in the ranking they have no problem in fixing the one/two small improvements they need to make and if a student did not do well, they are usually very eager to improve and the checklists provides a clear and simple method to do this. Those that want to stretch themselves that they must include all of the targets to come up with a perfect paragraph. 21% of students identified that the checklists was one of the main things that stretched them during lesson.
‘The DIRT days show me what I need to improve on and then I can try to fix it immediately’
‘Checklists allowed me to make sure that I had everything for the perfect PEE paragraph’
As well as this, I also used ‘step-ladder’ warm, hot and scorching checklists with tasks like creative where it is more difficult to outline clear cut instructions for a perfect paragraph. This breaks tasks down into achievable chunks and is allows for a ‘tick the list’ method that the students enjoyed.
‘The checklists give me a structure to follow and help me to expand on my work’
5) Sample Paragraphs
25% of students identified sample paragraphs as being one of the main things that has helped them this year. During the year, I gave the students various sample paragraphs and the checklist we had been using on the board. The students were encouraged to annotate the paragraph with where I had used the techniques thus showing them how to utilise each target. These were referred back to when they next had to do a similar task.
‘The sample paragraphs show me what I am leaving out so I know what to do for the next time’
6) Aim Higher/Extension Tasks
33% of students identified that Aim Higher Tasks as being a strategy that helped to extend their learning. Generally, I found Aim Highers to be the least popular of all the strategies I used as there is the perception that it is extra work. However, there was a noticeable difference in response to them if the Aim Higher required to think at length at a question rather than just asking them to write another paragraph. This year I really tried to create meaningful Aim Higher/Extension tasks that wasn’t just a continuation of what they had already completed. For this, I usually referred to Bloom’s Taxonomy in order to extend their learning. You can see from the example, the main task is to analyse language from the fast but the Aim Higher task in purple asks them to evaluate the importance of a character and consider why they were included in the novel which is the next step on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Finally, a noteworthy mention…
In my survey, the use of a Help Yourself sheet was identified by 46% of students as having helped them stretch and challenge themselves during my lesson. Part of this may be that the students are just simply confused by the idea of strategies that ‘challenge them’ and that they consider this to ‘stretch’ them to finish the actual task…Perhaps, they see it as a type of structure to expand their answers?
However, I am also positive that many of the students probably saw it as a safety cushion to fall back on as my Help Yourself resources (particularly those for PEE paragraphs) varied very little over the year. Essentially, I would edit one or two of the words from the old Help Yourself and print it out again. As the year went on, less students went to get one as they began to realise that it was the same thing over and over again. As well as that, if I ever saw a high ability student go for a Help Yourself, I usually told them to take a quick look and put it back as again as I knew that they were well able to do it and the reason why they were getting the Help Yourself was because they just needed reassurance before they could begin.
I thought that this result was particularly interesting as it again links back to Rubie-Davies* argument for a ‘positive class environment’. She states in her book that students who are in an ’emotionally supportive classroom and who received instruction that challenged their thinking’ generally had higher levels of achievement. The overwhelming support for the Help Yourself tasks in the survey is a strong indicator of this need for both academic support but also ’emotional support’ in Wexham. While the students may feel a lot more positive about their ability in English than they may have done at the beginning of the year, it is clear that much more work on growth mindset needs to happen with these students in order for them to reach the true extent of their abilities.