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A summary from the Everyone Wants to Learn conference (Feb 2007) of the elements that participants considered should be part of any strategy to shape a school community where everyone wants to learn

1. Structures for relationship
Exposing students to many adults, with specialised teaching areas, can be exciting for young people. But there is also a need for students to experience relationships with adults in which they feel known and supported.

Bishop’s Park College
Bishop’s Park College in Essex is the first school within a school (SWAS) to be designed and built as three small schools in the same building. The schools each have their own name and colour. The design embodies the principle that students learn best when they are known and valued as individuals in a framework of positive relationships with adults and peers. Students thrive when they are known by their teachers so that no one can slip through the cracks. Then their learning becomes the collective mission of a group of adults whom they have learned to trust.
www.bishopspark.essex.sch.uk

Steiner Schools
In Steiner schools, the development of strong pupil-student relationships is encouraged through an arrangement whereby children have, as far as is possible, the same class teacher from Year 2 to Year 9. They are then handed over to a ‘class guardian’, who assumes the pastoral role formerly held by the class teacher.

The class teacher takes students for a two-hour session at the beginning of the day, which enables him or her to build ‘excellent relationships with their pupils’ and to develop ‘a remarkable ability to bring classes to order on the strength of these’. As a result, ‘pupils feel confident and secure’.
Steiner Schools in England, RR645, www.dfes.gov.uk/research

Boston Pilot Schools
In Boston pilot schools, students engage with four teachers a week on integrated learning programmes. Each learning session lasts 90 minutes. No teacher teachers more than 70 different students in a week. The staff group of around 20 teachers meet on a regular (sometimes daily) basis to address the needs and behaviours of young people who may find it hard to engage with their learning.

Assessment is designed to be ‘authentic’ with students presenting portfolios and exhibitions of their work to staff, parents, members of their peer group and community ‘experts’. Teachers engage young people in running their lessons and co-constructing knowledge. As a result, the atmosphere in classes is calm and students are eager to participate.
The underlying principles around which these schools operate are that:

  • you cannot teach a student you do not know
  • if a child doesn’t learn, you must look to the school and not the child.

Taken from James Wetz’s Holding Children in Mind report. Copies from James Wetz – jaibwetz@hotmail.com

2. Learning community
Young people feel more engaged in learning if they have some degree of control over how they learn. Students experience such learning as having purpose and this helps them to find ways of making it relevant to the questions that confront them about their lives.

Relationships Research at the Graduate School of Education in Bristol shows that relationships (students to students and adults to adults) are a major factor in students’ capacity to engage with, enjoy and benefit from learning.

www.bristol.ac.uk/education/enterprise/elli

Opening Minds
The Opening Minds curriculum has been shown to have a positive effect on students’ motivation, confidence and behaviour, as well as their academic achievement.

The curriculum shapes teaching and learning around helping students to:

  • relate to other people in varying contexts
  • operate in teams
  • develop other people
  • communicate by different means
  • manage personal and emotional relationships
  • use varying means of managing stress and conflict.

The schools opted for an approach based partly or wholly on topics, modules or projects. This led to pupils spending more time with fewer teachers. Teachers welcomed the opportunities this gave them to become better acquainted with individual students and to involve students in group work.

The approach is credited with improving relationships across the community through enabling:

  • extended pupil-teacher contact time
  • collaboration between teachers on planning and delivery
  • the development of conflict resolution skills
  • equality between teachers and learners.

Opening Minds: Giving Young People a Better Chance, www.thersa.org

Learning guides
The Gilbert review argues that schools should appoint a learning guide, so that all pupils have at least one person who:

  • knows them, knows what they are learning and understands their learning needs in the round
  • jointly agrees targets for their learning and monitors progress across a range of indicators
  • meets pupils regularly for an extended formal review session
  • uses knowledge of any wider factors having an impact on their learning and draws on the resources of other specialist guidance and support in order to help them progress
  • can act as an advocate for them within the school, particularly in the design of learning and teaching experiences.

2020 Vision: Report of the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group, www.teachernet.gov.uk/publications

3. Classroom community
When attention is given to ensuring that students can work collaboratively with all their peers, as well as their friends, they are likely to create an environment that is not only more harmonious but also more stimulating to learning.

TalkiT
When Marilyn Tew asked pupils in Key Stage 3 what they considered important to their effectiveness in school, they talked in almost entirely emotional and social terms. It was taken for granted that effectiveness included an ability to achieve well in academic terms; yet their view was that students could not do well unless they were confident, able to manage their emotional states and engage in supportive relationships within school. In their view, it was not an either/or argument but a both/and one, with personal and social development underpinning and supporting the ability to benefit from the more formal curriculum.

The research led to the development of TalkiT, a tool that provides a ‘way in’ to talking about the things that young people identify as lying at the heart of a productive school life. This enables young people to reflect on the things that have been identified as important to being effective in school:

  • Self-awareness (integrity, imagination, optimism, confidence).
  • Motivation (staying on track with school rules, keeping going).
  • Getting on with others (communicating well, fitting in, sharing, working together).
  • Understanding others (empathy, being helpful).

www.antidote.org.uk/offer/talkit.html

Mystery Island
Mystery Island is an unpublished programme developed by Charles Snyman at Lister Community School. He was convinced that helping his tutor group acknowledge their feelings and negotiate their relationships would not only further their personal and social development but also improve their learning.

Working in groups of five or six, students imagine themselves on an island with varied habitats and limited resources. Each challenge they face gives rise to conflict between players who have been assigned different roles and interests. This provides a wealth of opportunities to help them reflect on their feelings, explore their differences, and develop their understanding of themselves and others. Group composition is critical to ensure a potent mix of gender, ability, interests and personality.

4. Staff reflection
Giving all staff opportunities to reflect on their experiences of working with young people not only enhances their wellbeing, but enables them to respond more sensitively to the demands that are placed upon them. Staff who are given time to reflect with each other become calmer about situations, more creative and strategic in their approaches and feel that they have a greater degree of control over what is happening.

Open dialogues ‘Opportunities need to be provided – through allocated time and funding – for staff to engage in reflective conversations with each other about what needs to happen to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Open dialogues build the quality of relationships by helping to shape a culture of trust and openness.’

Martin Buck, head of Lister Community School

Sharing ideas
‘Some of the staff became particularly interested in the questions they were being asked and wanted to meet in their own time to explore them more fully. They asked for space in which to reflect. In their meetings, they began to talk about their own experience in a classroom.

‘No one in our school had ever asked them to tell those stories before. As a result, they decided to go back into their classrooms and to some modest pieces of action research. They wrote them up and shared them with other staff. The ideas began to filter through the school. Other people felt empowered to tell their story. They then began to reflect a little bit about more active approaches to learning. That encouraged them to shift the school’s agenda from a teaching paradigm to a learning paradigm.’
Martin Buck, head of Lister Community School

Professional support ‘When we go to professional support, we’ll sit there and it might take a couple of minutes to get onto a subject that needs addressing. What I experience varies, depending on: what is being discussed; the needs of the group; who is there. Often, I experience comradeship and it reminds me that I am often not alone in my way of thinking, both educationally and in providing emotional support to children.’

Teacher on her experience of group supervision

5. Leadership
If school leaders are to shape learning environments characterised by open communication and strong relationships, they need to break down the distance between themselves and students as well as staff. They need to show that they are themselves learners, open to ideas and insights from any source.

Business researcher Jim Collins says in Great to Good that the leaders of great companies have two characteristics. They ‘display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated.’ At the same time, they are ‘fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results.’ They are also ‘resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions.’

The combination of ego-lessness and ruthlessness that he recommends is essential if leaders are to take people where they are happy to go. They need to be informed by the views, insights and feelings of everyone in the organisation, but then to do everything that needs doing to take them there.

Receive what is being said ‘The role of the leader in an organisation is to show fallibility and model outwardly reflective learning. You have got to want to engage out there, to receive what is being said rather than to block it. You must have the confidence to ask people to tell you what they think about how you are doing. Of course, you also have to listen and respond.’

Martin Buck, head of Lister Community School

For a full summary of the Everyone Wants to Learn conference go to www.antidote.org.uk/learning/reports9.html

This article first appeared in Raising Achievement Update – May 2007

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