How would you feel about a student critiquing your teaching style and lesson plans? Involving students in the teaching and learning process can promote agendas relating to student voice, believes Trevor Brittain

To me, one of the most challenging and revolutionary aspects of student voice has been students as learning partners (SaLP). After contemplating why this is the case we narrowed it down to the fact there has never been a precedent for this type of thinking before in school. Over the years we have seen versions of student councils, co-construction of lessons and schemes of work, mentoring/coaching but never before have we invited students in to observe and provide a critique our lessons.

But why not? Industry has been asking its customers to observe, monitor and feed back its products and services for well over a century, so why not give our customers a chance to give feedback? These were our thoughts on why we should involve students in the teaching and learning process.

What is SaLP?

We asked our students to define what SaLP meant to them and this is what they came up with:
‘Students consulting with teachers on a development focus and acting as teaching and learning observers. This enables students to give feedback to teachers who will try to act upon it.’

How did it evolve?

Before we could get this off the ground we had to sell it to both our students and – as a matter of priority – our teachers! The students were offered a trip out of school to attend a conjunctive training session with other specialist schools. The training was a huge success and after practising the key aspects of the training – such as observation, communication and feedback skills – we were ready for the start of our exciting venture in using students as observers in the classroom.

How did we train up our students?

Before we could train we needed to select students who were up to the job. We selected students from our pool of student learning reps, where one student is elected from each class to air their teaching and learning views. Once we had the right people, we had to do the right job at training them to become learning partners.

We started with what made good learning and explored a good learning/bad learning scenario. Next we moved on to the principles of SaLP, highlighting the SHORT (Sensitivity, Honesty, Open, Respect and Trust) underlying concept of SaLP. Then we devised a list of words and phrases that were ‘suitable’ to enable constructive feedback as well as phrases and words that were not. The students then did it for real – using a pre-recorded lesson from a colleague, we set the development focus for the teacher and observed the lesson. Feedback was provided at the end using a standard lesson observation proforma to assess the quality of our learning partners.

How does the scheme work?

1. Firstly, we pair up two learning partners with each teacher, typically from two different year groups and from different classes to those being taught by the teacher. 2. The teacher sets the developmental focus, ie what they want their learning partners to observe and feedback on. 3. Students meet with teacher for a pre-observation session to outline the focus, date/time of observation and agreed feedback date/time. Students are also issued with a lesson release form to enable their timetabled teacher to agree their absence from the lesson. 4. Students sign up to the SaLP agreement which outlines the terms on which the scheme is carried out on, ie the SHORT principle, confidentially etc. 5. The observation takes place. Students use a customised observation form to record the development focus and relevant observations in the lesson.

6. Students feed back to the teacher their observations during the lesson in relation to the agreed focus. This is presented to the teacher either orally or in written form depending on their preference. The next SaLP observation date is agreed.

How did we sell it to teachers?

We started small and we showed the benefits – simple as that, starting from the top and rolling it down. After pairing up students with teachers, we began our observations. To set our developmental focus we selected aspects of our departmental SEF and recent feedback from Ofsted, as each teacher sets their own developmental focus for their learning partners to observe.

Once a couple of observations had taken place, we used the students, their feedback and our own experiences to share it on our professional development day and sold it to the rest of the department. We were keen to develop this but left it open to voluntary uptake, but thankfully all six members of our department took the challenge and on we went.

Where to next?

Our students have been enthused with the idea and presented the good practice at the SSAT Annual Student Conference in March 2007. We are working in conjunction with a number of schools to develop best practice principles to help us refine the scheme further. This has included the development of a SaLP managed blog to enable our students to share their experiences. Our students are working with a number of schools and providing training sessions in and out of house to help schools achieving this ambition.

Students’ views of the scheme

Here I present transcripts of interviews with two students about how they became involved in the scheme, together with their thoughts on how it had gone so far.

Describe how you got involved in the scheme
Tom: At the beginning of term each class was informed of a position available as a student rep. A job description was handed out by Mr Brittain which detailed all the essential qualities and roles this job would entail. One of the key roles was to become a teaching and learning ambassador for the department which involved taking an active role in the students as learning partners programme. A few months later Mr Brittain informed us that we would be undertaking some training with another school on how to observe lessons.

Why did you want to get involved in SaLP?
Tom: I wanted to get involved in SaLP as I wanted a say about the learning in my lessons. I have enjoyed all the aspects of SaLP, particularly giving my thoughts on how teachers can improve and then going back to see whether they have taken any notice (which Mr Brittain has done so far!). My friends sometimes think it’s a little weird me being at the back of the room watching them but most of them have got used to it now. 

How have the observations worked?
Jordan: Mr Brittain has set us two focuses so far this year: the first one was to look at his starters to his lessons and the second was to look at the ways different students responded to his activities in class. We observed two lessons on Mr Brittain’s starters and we saw a big difference and improvement as a result of our feedback from the first observation.  We then observed Mr Brittain teach a Year 8 ICT lesson were we looked at sets of students and the differences in their learning. We are planning to observe the same lesson with another lesson using the same activities but with another group to see if there are any differences. 

Describe what training you received
Tom: When the day came about, we met students from the other school and the day started by a brief introduction by Mr Brittain on what the day involved. The first activity we did was to mind map the importance of students in the role of learning. We wrote our thoughts down on Post-it notes and shared these as a group. We were then introduced to the Sensitivity, Honest, Open, Respect, Trust (SHORT) idea of SaLP. This was important as we could then understand what was expected of us when observing. 

Jordan: Then we moved on to the five-stage process of SaLP. Firstly, there is the learning agreement which involves signing a contract confirming that all the observation details and information is kept confidential. Secondly, students meet with the teacher and agree a focus for the observation including the date/time of the observation. Then the observation can take place before students can feed back to the teacher on how well they performed.

Before we could take this further we did an activity which allowed us to think about the structure of our feedback. We devised a list of positive and negative phrases that should/should not be used when giving feedback. We were also given a vocabulary list that we could take into our feedback session on good words to say to start our sentences.

The final part of the training day was to do it for real. A video recording of an RE lesson was shown and we had to give feedback on the specific focus given to us. We completed observation forms as we watched and then we were asked to present our ideas and thoughts on the lesson and how well the teacher did against the development focus set.

What happened after the training took place?
Tom: After being back in school for a week we were given our teachers who formed our learning partnership. I was paired with Mr Brittain and Jordan, a Year 8 student. 

What do you think to SaLP?
Tom: I found the experience amazing as getting to see a lesson from the back of the room. It gave me the chance to think about the learning in my own lesson and how I react to different activities set by my teachers. 

Jordan: The most interesting part of the whole thing has been collecting students’ thoughts on the teachers’ style and focus and then being able to feed this information back. I have observed Mr Brittain’s lesson on three occasions this year and I have seen a difference in the way he teaches based on the feedback I have given to him.

Do you think SaLP has helped you in anyway?
Jordan: Mr Brittain has really made us think about what learning involves and what makes good learning. I think this has really helped me understand why I’m in lessons and helped me understand some of the things I don’t always do right in lessons. I have enjoyed working with Mr Brittain as he lets us have a say on what we think of lessons which is very different to other lessons and teachers. 

Tom: I recognise some of the things Mr Brittain has told us about in the training in other teachers’ lessons. This has helped me understand why we are doing things. I have also become more confident in letting teachers know if I am not learning for some reason. 

Trevor Brittain, head of business, Launceston College, Cornwall