Richard Gould describes the approach for able post-16 students at Villiers Park Educational Trust

Villiers Park Educational Trust has been working with able post-16 students for 40 years and over 10,000 have attended residential courses at our centres. The students come from all types of schools and colleges and from across the UK. In addition to in-house events we run a wide range of day long masterclasses at universities nationwide.

So what do we provide and is there anything that can be taken back to the classroom to support everyday teaching? Some things can’t be – a residential experience with like-minded students; the opportunity to work on one subject for a full week; an extremely comfortable and well-resourced environment; small seminar sizes; no constraint of an examination syllabus.

We feel that some findings are of interest to teachers. You might agree with some and disagree with others and, of course you, might well be utilising all the suggestions already. But do bear in mind that the following has been constructed as a result of listening to what the students say – very little theory (although we do like Kolb and Renzulli); just what works in practice.

The programme for Spanish American Society, Culture and Literature, one of our residential courses for Year 12 and Year 13 students, illustrates our approach. It is a busy week and the students are work hard. We never receive complaints about the workload being too heavy and the students become totally immersed in the one subject. If it is challenging and enjoyable, bright students don’t shy away from it. 

Immersion to encourage variety

If I could make one change to sixth form timetabling, it would be to have a whole day for each subject taken rather than to split the classes over the week. In addition to giving students the opportunity to become absorbed with the subject, it would encourage teachers to reflect more carefully about pedagogy. Would current classroom activities at your school be varied enough to engage students’ interest across an entire day?

Setting the context

Our students appreciate receiving the programme in advance of the course and we endeavour to make titles thought provoking to stimulate interest. Is the equivalent standard practice at your school or college? Is there a programme for each topic, ideally with recommended websites and additional reading for those who want to take things further? Is this programme provided well in advance, perhaps as part of the virtual learning environment?

Preparatory work to encourage active participation

A key aim for every session is to get active participation from each student. Much has been written about ‘letting go’ in relation to G&T students. We believe that achieving this becomes easier with some front-loading: getting the students to do research or giving them information in advance of a lesson greatly increases the chance of participation. The teachers we work with sometimes say pupils won’t do it, but many students will appreciate that it contributes more to the learning experience than most post-lesson homework. For our Spanish course the students were given three articles to read in advance of attendance (The Anatomy of a Virgin by F Gonzales-Crussi; La Llorana by Milagros Palma; La Lengua de las Mariposas by Manuel Rivas) as well as being given reading at the start of some seminars.

Discussion and active participation

When I was lecturing at Oxford Brookes University, the Educational Support Unit undertook some research about the role of open discussion as a route to active participation by all. They sat in on seminars and concluded that in open discussion, irrespective of group size, one student took 40% of talk time and another took 20%. With a group of four students that would be fine, but consider a group of 20. Assume an hour lesson, half of which is taken up by the teacher. Of the remaining 30 minutes, 18 minutes would be taken up by two students, leaving 12 minutes shared by 18; an average of 40 seconds each. Open discussion simply doesn’t work as the main way of getting everyone involved. There are, of course, lots of reasons why a G&T (or any) student might not contribute to a discussion: shyness, laziness, reflective consideration of the complexity of the question. 

We frequently utilise workshops with a strong awareness that these need to be carefully organised to be effective. A lot has been written about how to make this approach work: setting ground rules, dividing the work into a series of smaller tasks, utilising techniques such as jigsaw. We consider pyramiding to be a very effective technique to overcome the shortcomings of open discussion and to foster the development of workshops.

A Business Studies example of Jigsaw
With groups of four, each group is given a ‘new’ company to develop with operations, marketing, finance and human resources responsibilities. After a brief initial meeting, the groups reform so that all marketing students join together to discuss key issues for their function, as do other roles. Having shared ideas, they then return to their original groups to present findings before working together to develop their own company.

Pyramiding (or snowballing)
Students are set a short task and given time to jot down an answer working alone. They are then asked to form pairs to compare answers and seek consensus on the issue at hand. Each participant has had to formulate a view and is likely to be prepared to justify their case when in a pair – the shy, the lazy, the reflective ones are far more likely to participate than during an open discussion.

Success can in part be measured by the change from silence when working individually to the upsurge of noise when working in pairs.
The next task is introduced in which the participants consider in pairs, before merging with another pair to negotiate a consensus view. Pyramiding leads nicely to effective group work.

G&T support for their peers Teachers frequently state, ‘I didn’t know my subject until I started teaching it.’ This is true for G&T students who often have an excellent internal grasp of an idea or topic, but explaining it to their peers takes that understanding to a new level. Recent research by Wagner and Gansemer-Topf on how much students remembered a week after a seminar compared sessions solely involving listening (5% remembered), practising by doing (80%), and teaching others (90%). There is certainly scope in a workshop environment for the most able in the group to support their peers.

During all our courses, including the Spanish one, we make group presentations an integral part of the workshop structure. This enhances the need for the G&T students to make sure that everyone in a mixed ability group understands the work.

The 3 Es
What about the programme itself? Enrichment and extension are frequently used in relation to the full curriculum for G&T students but we refer to three Es at subject level: enrichment, extension and expertise. 

We take enrichment to relate to breadth of knowledge, an aspect of the subject that is not part of the taught syllabus. This could include comparisons with works of contemporaries of the set text author in English Literature; practical uses of a concept like partial differentiation to explain traffic congestion in mathematics; or in the case of the Spanish course Mexican Day of the Dead and other Latin American festivals.

When discussing programmes with tutors we relate extension to depth of knowledge, an aspect of the subject that provides greater insight into a syllabus topic. An introduction to literary theory in English Literature; using the biography of the mathematician to set a new theory in context in mathematics; or in the case of the Spanish course looking at art, music and politics to provide an insight into a set text.

Expertise or ‘thinking like an astronaut/chess player/detective…’ is the ultimate goal, requiring a process that can range from being utilised during a one-day masterclass introducing a single topic, to a complete module in school. The steps include:

  • acquiring knowledge, skills and concepts (broadening and deepening)
  • establishing domain valued behaviours, rules and norms
  • developing intellectual playfulness – breaking domain rules with ‘what if…?’    
  • discussing key issues to facilitate the move from black and white to grey areas 
  • reaching tentative conclusions that might well be challenged in the next session.

The Spanish American Society, Culture and Literature Course
During our five day residential courses we provide AS and A2 level students with an opportunity to engage more deeply with their subject and to work with like-minded people. Each course has two tutors from a university who are encouraged to utilise a stimulating range of teaching strategies and materials. This course aims to provide an opportunity for students to improve their linguistic skills through written, visual oral and aural exercises whilst acquiring an appreciation of Spanish American culture, literature and society.

This was the timetable for the fourth day:

9.15-10.45: Group 1: Southern Cone history and the nueva canción; Group 2: Manuel Rivas and the Spanish short story 11.15-12.45:  Groups change 2.00:  Free time 3.00:  Group 1: Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution; Group 2: Discussion of ideas for presentations 4.30:  Groups change 6.00-7.00: Workshop 3: Preparation for presentations

8.30:  Film: La Lengua de las Mariposas

Richard Gould is director at Villiers Park Educational Trust, a national charity that aims to create inspirational classrooms for the G&T by facilitating the sharing of knowledge and best practice between teachers, lecturers and students at school, college and university. 
www.villierspark.org.uk

Further information

  • Kolb and Renzulli: www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm
  • Wagner, M, and Gansemer-Topf, A, Learning by Teaching Others: a Qualitative Study Exploring the Benefits of Peer Teaching, Landscape Journal, volume 24, number 2, September 2005, pp198-208, University of Wisconsin
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