Welcome to my attempt to archive and share some experiences at making learning more visible in my classroom

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Encouraging confident learners

Man looking at camera: “I don’t think this is going to work?  Anyone think we should just stay stuck?”

Some classes gather momentum from day one and make leaps and bounds and bring joy to their teacher every lesson. Some do not and need a little help. I have a class at the moment that needs a little encouragement, to become a little more confident, if we are ever to get the point of joy and wonderment together.  There are a couple of things we need to work on together but issue Number 1, in my head, sounds a little bit like this:

“When you ask me for help you simply want the answer, without having to think at all.  I want to engage in a stimulating conversation about the topic with the cut and thrust of intellectual debate.”

You can see that this is as much a problem for me as much as the students.  In fact, the problem has been worse than this - most pupils didn’t ask for help at all.  Too happy to be stuck and wait for the answer, solution or thinking to be given to them on a silver plated, powerpoint based lecture from your's truly. I needed a way to get students to ask for help in such a way which would enable three things to happen:

  1. they would feel encouraged to seek help when completing complex tasks
  2. they would have the confidence to ask for help or ask a question without fear of making themselves look like a buffoon
  3. I wouldn't get swamped by loads of poor questions or requests for help which were disguised as just wanting the answer
and also it had to help me identify precisely what they actually, specifically required help with. Most importantly, we needed to all begin to form some habits and behaviours around asking for help.  

So make that 5 things. What better way to instil confidence but by giving students an indication of the kind of language to use in a particular situation. My starting point was around the solo taxonomy since not everyone requires the same level of help or support. I am calling it “Question casino”. On a slide it looks like this:

Solo Structured 

Students at prestructural level haven’t yet formed a clear understanding. Often this means: "I haven’t got a clue so I need some help from you but I am also not really sure what part of the task or thinking I am stuck with." The prompts I gave them in the first column help to pinpoint exactly what it is the student needs help with and avoid them saying:  “ I can’t do it” or “It doesn’t make any sense” or “I’m stuck”. So at the first level they are encouraged to ask CLARIFYING questions: like

“What does x mean?”  “I don’t understand x, can you explain it”  “I’m having trouble understanding what it means by X….”

Using  these low level questions or phrases gains a white casino chip worth $5. Whoop.

Students at unistructural level need to build up their ideas and knowledge:  For a student this might mean "I have one idea about this but haven’t yet built up a full picture; there are parts I don’t understand". So using the prompts encourages students to ask slightly more PROBING questions about a specific item. The students are probing me about something they want to know but they have to be specific. So, they are encouraged to ask questions which start with….


or say things like -

“there’s part of the source I don’t understand…”
“In this section it says, “xyz”... does that mean...?”

Using  these questions or phrases gains a Blue Chip worth $20. Whoot, whoot.

Students at the multistructural level have several ideas and pieces of knowledge but may lack confidence in connecting these or applying them in different contexts.  In History this can be an issue especially when investigating primary sources.  So students are encouraged to Check their Understanding and be asked a question. They are encouraged to use phrases such as:

"I think that x is correct because…. Do you agree?"

"I have written this but I am concerned about…"
"Can you settle an argument about….?"
"Am I right in thinking…?"

As a reward for doing the thinking and offering their ideas students gain a Red $30 chip. Hooray. 

Finally, students at relational level are usually knowledgeable and confident about seeing how their ideas link and are able to offer analysis of ideas. In theory this means they don't require much support so depending on the task I made the final category about getting on without any help but with the stipulation that they had to get the task 100% correct.  This would gain them a black chip worth an additional 20% on top of the highest score.  Risky but with a reward.

What happened when I introduced this?

I introduced it as I have described here - me to class “I need to understand if you are stuck and require help but you could think more deeply about the help you need, so here’s some language we can benefit from.  Use the phrases to receive a coloured chip worth the value of the request.  You may ask up-to 6 questions in a clockwise direction so that each person in the group is able to ask for help”.   Ignoring me, their eyes glazed over and were drawn to the pile of casino chips, sitting, without value at the front of the room.

I set it up to run over the course of a 15 minute activity  where students were investigating different primary sources and trying to put together a response to a typical 7 mark question:  "What is the message of the source?"  They were given a mark scheme and were familiar with the skills and writing required so that the Black Chip could definitely be obtained; some students could do the task unaided.  It also helped that each table had a different source so that the questions couldn't be repeated.

Two groups immediately announced their desire to go for the Black Chip and trump everyone else.  One table stayed the course and completed the task in the set time but did not get the task 100% correct.  They were upset when they got no chips at all and no dollars but immediately saw the value of asking for help, even if it was to clarify their understanding.  I gave them 50 bucks for their efforts as they'd had some excellent discussion on their table and given the task a good go independently. 

Another group used up their questions in rapid succession without thought, with each individual group member asking lower level questions.  Where it really worked is at the RED CHIP level, because students began to agree on what would be said as they had to take turn to ask their question.  Using the cues on the board students were keen to maximise the value of their questions and would ask me to check their understanding as they worked through the task. 

For many of the students this was the first time that they were engaging in a conversation with me about their understanding outside our regular norms of the question / answer repartee.  This pattern of verbal exchange spread rapidly across the classroom as more and more groups realised that by working together and figuring out the answers they could gain valuable chips by checking their thinking. 

This was beginning to have an impact for two reasons: pupils were actively working together to problem solve and support each other; students were initiating discussion with me about the topic in a way which was more adult and thoughtful; it allowed me to ask follow up questions if students hadn't explained themselves.  The chip would not be handed over until any subsequent questions from me were answered.

The class drew out in our debrief the success of the strategy and identified 2 key features of the way it helped the class:
  1. Forces everyone in the group to support each other and break the habit of a lifetime and ask for help in a meaningful way
  2. It means the teacher isn’t doing the thinking for the pupils
Over the next three lessons we used the strategy and refined it slightly each with some phrases being added to the board.  “Am I right in thinking….”   became rather over used!

Proof of the pudding is in the normalised use

I'm sure you're wondering - what happens to the racks of chips the students have won?  We kept a spread sheet showing the totals and at the end of last term the group who had accumulated the most chips got a round of applause from the class.  There was a clamour for sweets and chocolate as a prize, which was ignored by grumpy altar ego.

More importantly is the fact that, with only a picture of a chip on the board or a quick reminder the banter quickly now turns to, "Am I right in thinking that..." and "Sir, he is seriously suggesting that x is y...  Can you come and settle an argument?"  Of course I can.

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