Shiraz Chakera, professional networks manager for the GTCE, describes how the Engage Network has supported early career teachers in coping with a major concern – classroom behaviour

Managing classroom behaviour is top of the list of many new teachers’ concerns. Findings from the most recent report from the GTC’s six-year research project, Becoming a Teacher, show that, for many newly qualified teachers, while pupils provide the ultimate reward in teaching, their poor behaviour was often the cause of the major low points. As the testimonies of several teachers taking part in the survey highlight, challenging and disruptive behaviour in the classroom has the potential to spoil even the most well-prepared lessons, making teachers feel disheartened and powerless.

Understanding the frustrations of less experienced teachers, and keen to offer as much practical help as possible, in March this year the GTC’s Engage network – for early career teachers and those who support them – launched an exciting new project with the aim of supporting effective learning behaviour for pupils.

At special events in York and Coventry, teachers were invited to take part in the Behaviour for Learning project. As a result, during the last few months around 80 early career teachers have been investigating a variety of learning techniques in their own classrooms, using research to support the development of their practice.

The research projects

Working with the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), the teachers began by examining an anthology of research compiled from the GTC’s popular website feature, Research of the Month (RoM).  Inspired by RoM topics – including group work, thinking skills, assessment and pupil talk – teachers created their own research projects, spending a term working with their students back in the classroom, testing theories in their own practice to discover what makes a real difference.  As one participant, Lillian Kulaya, from Bemrose community school in Derby, says: ‘The Behaviour for Learning project is so relevant, as you’re working on research with your own pupils, in your own school, and looking at your own practices.’ While another teacher, Georgia James-Olmer of Guilsborough school, Northampton, adds: ‘I’m in my second year of teaching and had never considered experimenting in the classroom before, but the Behaviour for Learning project has given me the confidence to try new things.’

Teachers’ projects experimented in a wide range of areas, including:

  • comparing assessment techniques – for example, different combinations of self, peer and teacher assessment
  • examining reward systems for encouraging better behaviour
  • studying the extent to which pupils pass skills between themselves
  • encouraging children to focus on their own thinking skills.

Underpinning the project is an aspiration to encourage teachers to use high-quality accessible research, embedding evidence-based practice from the earliest stages of their careers. Teachers’ learning and development has been focused by working with the GTC’s Teacher Learning Academy (TLA), the first national system that both recognises and celebrates the learning that takes place everyday in the professional lives of teachers. For those teachers taking part, there have been many benefits. For instance, in addition to learning about techniques that improve behaviour and learning, participants have also enhanced their own teaching by focusing directly on their practice. As Ian Henry of Filton high school in Bristol reports: ‘This project work has given me the opportunity to try different learning strategies, such as peer assessment, and it’s very successful. I’ve seen some good results already.’ The projects have now been collated into a detailed web-based resource, broadening the pool of ideas for the profession as a whole. Launched in October, the resource incorporates around 20 RoM ‘tasters’, which are one-page summaries of research on a specific issue, such as assessment for learning. Questions and prompts encourage the reader to think about how the research may aid their own practice.

In addition, there are eight case studies featuring the learning journeys of teachers who have been involved in the project to date. Two – focusing on teachers Colin Hill and Louisa Nichols – are explored here. Details of how to access the resource will be emailed to every teacher who is part of the Engage network.

Case study 1: speaking and listening For Key Stage 1 teacher Colin Hill, of Birkdale Primary School in Southport, trying to involve his pupils in group work was often challenging, with many of the activities being led by one or two pupils, while others stayed on the sidelines, unwilling to participate. Keen to help his pupils develop their skills for working together effectively, Colin seized the opportunity to take part in the Behaviour for Learning project, after attending one of the launch events in York. Here, he heard about research that showed how pupils could become more aware of their own thinking, by sharing their thoughts with others during group work. ‘It struck a chord with me,’ Colin recalls. Back in the classroom, he used various resources – including Research of the Month – to develop a series of six sessions focused on speaking and listening. At the outset, he video-recorded a session of group work, so he could study the dynamics before experimenting with any new strategies. Next, he evaluated his pupils’ current skills, using a stick-sorting task. Unfortunately the session ended in conflict after only four minutes. The following session introduced some basic rules, including not interrupting one another, putting a hand up to ask a question, and only allowing pupils to speak when they were holding a ‘turn-taking’ ball. ‘I planned this session to be deliberately short as I knew the new rules were likely to cause frustration,’ says Colin. Further sessions encouraged pupils to ask each other questions, justifying their answers by using the word ‘because’. The six sessions culminated in an open-ended activity, where children were asked to order pictures of a cat and a snail to make a logical story, but one of the pictures didn’t fit. Pupils had to argue for their own interpretation and come to a consensus. ‘The dominant pupils weren’t taking the lead anymore and the whole group got much more out of the exercise,’ says Colin. Other spin-off benefits he has identified include an increase in pupils’ self-confidence; more listening and less interruption; and better collaboration.

Based upon his work, Colin has now submitted a TLA presentation at Stage 2. He is also planning to share his learning with his colleagues, encouraging them to try similar activities.

Case study 2:  Using an interactive approach Developing positive attitudes towards learning through a more interactive approach was the impetus behind Louisa Nichols’s Behaviour for Learning project. As head of psychology and a history teacher at Raine’s Foundation School in Bethnal Green, London, Louisa designed a ‘collective memory’ activity. This involved showing students a detailed poster about a current history topic and asking them to work together, in mixed-ability groups, to reconstruct it.  In one instance, this involved the impact of the blitz on local streets, while another looked at the reign of James 1.   At the beginning and end of the project, Louisa asked the head of history to observe one of her lessons to assess her teaching, the students’ group work, their learning and their engagement. After the first observation, he worked with Louisa to develop her understanding and skills for setting up tasks. ‘Initially it was quite difficult to manage the students’ behaviour,’ admits Louise, ‘but the more I did it, the more my confidence increased.’ And the improvements in her teaching were evident, with the head of history commenting, after his second observation, that Louisa’s instructions were extremely clear and that all her students understood what was expected of them. As well as finding it fun, the exercise also seemed to stimulate pupils’ memory skills, with many recalling significant amounts of information even after a few months. ‘There was a tendency to remember things better in the longer term,’ says Louisa.

When she asked the students for feedback on the activity, one commented: ‘We worked really well as a group and we all helped each other remember things.’

While the first stages of the project are now complete, its work is far from over. Next on the agenda is a series of regional events, hosted by the Engage network. These will enable teachers to get together to discuss the results of the project so far, with the immediate goal of encouraging more people to take part. Ultimately, this will ensure that the online resource keeps improving.

More Engage resources

Building on the success of the project, currently Engage – which celebrates its second birthday this autumn – is working towards developing resources in two other key areas, both of which are underlined as important issues for early career teachers in the latest Becoming a Teacher report. Firstly, we’ll be looking at special educational needs, cited by 13% of survey respondents as an area where they felt they would benefit from additional training or professional development. And secondly, we’ll be investigating working with other adults. The vast majority of newly qualified teachers taking part in the study gave high importance to positive work-based relationships with colleagues, with many seeing them as crucial to feeling supported throughout their induction. Clearly there is much to engage all of us as we look to the future.

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