Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards: a winning strategy (part 1)
11 August 2014
The inaugural Prime Ministers Education Excellence Awards winners.
Programmes for Students (PfS) is a suite of interventions that are successfully supporting students who have been identified as below curriculum achievement expectations in reading, writing or mathematics.
The three elements of Programmes for Students: Accelerating Learning in Literacy (ALL); Accelerating Learning in Mathematics (ALiM); and Mathematics Support Teacher (MST) provide support for schools to use teachers with expertise to design and run short, intensive interventions focussed on accelerating a small group of students, inquiring into their own practice and sharing what they have learned.
One of the key features of ALL and ALiM is that, with support, schools design their own 15 week interventions. Both ALL and ALiM are based on a ‘theory of action’ and are similar in approach.
MST runs for a whole year with multiple groups of short to medium-term interventions, rather than ALL and ALiM’s single, short-term intervention with one or more groups.
Schools initially apply for one year. ALL schools have the opportunity to apply for a second year and a third year. Schools in ALiM can apply for a second year, or they can choose to apply for a Mathematics Support Teacher (MST). MST runs for two years. Schools are given funding and support to partially release the MST teacher to run a series of interventions for small groups of students, pursue postgraduate study, and further embed pedagogical improvement in mathematics into the school.
Communities of Schools working towards an achievement challenge in reading, writing or maths may also consider implementing one of the programmes (ALL, ALiM or MST) across their community.
Mt Somers Springburn School, a small country school nestled in the scenic foothills of the Southern Alps in Mid-Canterbury, is half-way through the second year of their Programmes for Students journey.
Lead literacy teacher Ginny Neal has been leading the school’s ALL programme, with support from principal Brent Gray and a board of trustees enthusiastic about giving all of their learners maximum opportunities to learn.
Last year in the first year of the school’s involvement with ALL, Ginny provided intervention for a group of six students, who were identified as not meeting literacy expectations. This was supplementary support in an intensive effort to get them to achievement expectation. The students were those who had received previous interventions but had not made the required shifts. Ginny found that, following her ALL intervention, the students as a group shifted dramatically to meet expectation. As a result of this outcome the school has made some definite decisions about what interventions will be undertaken in their school in their future. It also confirmed for Ginny and Brent the success of ALL and hence their continued involvement this year.
Ginny stresses that one of the great things about Programmes for Students is the freedom schools have to tailor the intervention to the needs of their identified acceleration cohort. The overall design however, is guided by the Programmes for Students Theory of Action.
In their second year of ALL, schools ‘step-up’ to widen the impact of ALL across teachers and the school so that any student at risk of not achieving can be given the intervention support they need.
Ginny and Brent see the ALL programme as an opportunity not just to accelerate the learning of their priority learners, but also to improve the pedagogy of the teaching staff as a whole - the point of Programmes for Students is that it will engender lasting school-wide change, rather than simply be forgotten about after the intervention.
At the beginning of any ALL , ALiM or MST intervention comes the critical inquiry phase. Ginny says that she was aware throughout the process that collecting data is one thing; putting it to good use is quite another.
“In order for any kind of intervention or classroom programme to be successful, you need to know where your kids are at, so it’s that close analysis of their learning and their needs, and then teaching to those needs and building capabilities. That was a major part of it for us, analysing really carefully.
“Most schools have probably found themselves in the situation where they’re collecting lots of data, but it’s not always analysed as carefully as it could be. We did quite a bit of ‘back-mapping’ using the information that we had.”
Having relevant and age-appropriate curriculum expectations in her sights, Ginny designed a pathway for her students’ progress that ensured they had opportunities to learn the skills they needed to transfer their literacy learning to their current class work.
It has been found in ALL that when students’ needs are identified it is easier to be proactive and teach to these needs at the year level the student is presently at, enabling them to access The New Zealand Curriculum at their year level.
Some might wonder whether parents could be alarmed at the prospect that their child has been placed in an intervention programme, with all the outdated and negative stereotypes that can still stigmatise this kind of work. Brent says that as their learning community has an ‘open door policy’ in the normal course of events anyway, there were no surprises in store for parents.
“They all knew that their children hadn’t met expectations at National Standards level. We run a lot of parent teacher conferences, we talk to our parents a lot, we’re always in contact about their learning. All of the parents were actually really glad that their children were being given this help.”
Ginny re-emphasises that the point of ALL is that the school designs their own programme, to meet the needs of their individual learners, meaning that no two schools will necessarily approach it in the same way.
“The brief is that we’ve got to accelerate literacy learning – that means beyond what would normally be expected progress – for that year group or age. There’s no set format that has to be followed, so every school’s intervention is different and we saw that at the impact day at the end of the year.
“So for us, last year, it looked like a withdrawal group for half an hour a day, five days a week, working on specific learning intentions that we’ve identified our students need. We got involved in a lot of deliberate acts of teaching, and really explicit teaching.
“In a lot of cases, it was about going back to what we know works, but may have forgotten about. It was re-reading the Ministry documents, it was investigating the latest research. The fact that the board was able to give me time to do that was great, because the one thing we know teachers don’t have is time.”
Through ALL Ginny is learning about what helps to accelerate student achievement and is passing on what she has learned to other teachers.
One of the key approaches that has made a real difference to learners at Mount Somers Springburn is an explicit focus on oral language and vocabulary teaching, says Ginny.
“We were using a lot of academic vocabulary when talking to the students. We were talking about adjectives rather than ‘wow words’; we were talking about the specific literary language, as opposed to hoping that students would just pick these things up. The specific focus on oral language was major for us, we did a lot of talking about why we were doing what we were doing.”
Principal Brent Gray says that the fact this isn’t a ‘cookie-cutter’ solution where a school just plugs the programme in and hopes for the best, has paid dividends.
“One of the crucial things has been that the intervention, as we developed it, was very fluid, because a couple of weeks in, it became quite clear that we’d made some incorrect assumptions as to where these kids were at.
“We’d assumed by year 4 they would have a lot of basic knowledge but we very quickly found that we were making those assumptions based on prior knowledge of where a child should be.
“We had to re-scaffold the crucial learning that these students were missing, that was affecting their entire literacy uptake.”
Ginny says that the assessment strategies, undertaken before, during and after the intervention itself, made a big difference, and is part of the reason that Programmes for Students started getting results almost immediately. It was all about removing preconceptions, she says. With quality baseline data, the effort involved could be that much more tightly focused. Brent doesn’t hesitate when asked to point to a key learning for him and his staff that has come out of their involvement with Programmes for Students so far.
“I think one of the key things we focused on was that in the past we have perhaps relied too much on a ‘reading book culture’ that has been around for a long time: children would use an instructional reader with a teacher during the day, then take it home to read to their parents at night - they would struggle like anything to read it to their parents, because it was actually at an instructional level, rather than an independent level.”
Ginny did a lot of familiar reading with her group, which successfully changed the way parents were involved, and what the school sends home for sharing with parents.
To keep the learning focus going in the home environment Ginny also created games and activities that the students took home to do with their families/whānau which engaged each child’s family alongside their child’s learning.
Cathee Wilks is the mathematics support teacher (MST) at Springlands School in sunny Blenheim. After the first year of involvement with ALiM year 1, an intervention that targets a cohort below National Standards expectations, the school successfully applied for the MST programme, which supported Cathee to pursue postgraduate study, while inquiring further into her practice, and working with small groups of students identified as ‘well below’ National Standard expectations. Echoing the sentiments of Ginny Neal at Mount Somers Springburn School, Cathee says Programmes for Students is just as much about targeted acceleration of an identified cohort as it is about getting teachers to examine their own practice.
“The programme has led to a lot of discussion among teachers about practice, and the best way of accelerating learners. So as a whole school, the professional learning that’s come from ALiM and MST has been great.”
The emphasis on group learning, says Cathee, has meant substantial gains for her groups of identified students, even if some of those gains are difficult to measure. Cathee’s inquiry into her own practice, with the support of principal Gaylene Beattie, revealed the fact that when learning is passive, vulnerable learners risk falling behind.
“Some of these students are quite passive learners, so we’re really encouraging them to talk about their learning and justify their understanding. There’s been a lot more use of materials also, and more authentic problem contexts, ones that students can relate to.
Cathee found that some of Springlands’ struggling mathematics learners have trouble imaging a problem in their heads. The answer has been to encourage teachers to use lots of open and real questions, and modelling. To help students conceptualise the problem they are approaching, learning object materials have been successfully used, and are gradually withdrawn as learners become more confident in their ability to imagine the factors in a problem.
Allowing learners to approach mathematics in a way that makes sense to them has been a revelation also, says Cathee.
“One of the pedagogical changes that we’ve embraced was that we don’t tell the children how to do maths, how to solve the problem. You allow them to solve the problem in the way that seems most natural to them, and then they bring that back to the discussion, from which come teaching points. In the past, there was always the ‘right way’ to do maths, when we taught students how to do something, but now we allow them to find their own entry point. What they tell us as to how they gained entry to a problem can then be used to model one’s teaching.”
At Springlands School another learning coming from the Programmes for Students initiative is that mistakes are beautiful, says Cathee.
“Mistakes are a big part of the process, and children are encouraged to make them and to own them. We try to encourage the children to see them as learning opportunities.”
Co-constructing successful outcomes with students has also been invaluable, and something that’s now being embedded into the wider practice of all teachers, says principal Gaylene Beattie. It’s all about getting the kids to talk more about their own learning, she says.
“We’ve seen the benefits in children self-assessing where they are along the rubric, so then they can go away and have another try [at a problem] and see if they’ve made an improvement.
“Students are really encouraged to talk about their learning. In the past, the teacher did most of the talking. We’re now taking more of a facilitative role. The students become the teachers, and they can help other students with how to solve problems. It’s about more ownership and agency.”
Gaylene says that one of the big positives to come out of Programmes for Students at her school is the access to the latest research that MST Cathee Wilks has been able to examine and share with the rest of the school. Highlights to come from her professional learning so far includes the fact that it’s now recognised that grouping learners together based on ability is counter-productive.
“The evidence for mixed ability groupings is strong. The research says that it’s not good to label kids, and also that kids need to be able to learn from each other.”
In keeping with the spirit of Programmes for Students, the whole school is using the programme as a cue to focus on maths, so that Cathee’s professional development is put to best use in the service of learners.
In line with the thoughts of the team at Mount Somers Springburn, stigmatisation isn’t even worth talking about: it’s a matter of the sort of culture that the school has in place. Those learners that Cathee works with don’t think of themselves as being removed from class because they ‘don’t get it’, rather they think of themselves as simply having their individual learning needs met, she says.
“Our children go out of the class all the time for various things, for extension and just to meet their specific needs. Particularly at maths time, there’s various groups coming and going all the time.
“The kids really enjoy the small group intensive learning style. Quite often they seem to feel quite empowered by the withdrawal lessons, because sometimes I’ll ‘front-load’ the students for their upcoming lessons, so they enter the classroom quite empowered because they know something that other students don’t know.”
“I think it comes back to the culture you create. You’re going out to have your particular learning needs met, you’re not going out because you’re achieving poorly. It’s all about the language we use.”
Gaylene and Cathee both say that there has been evidence of acceleration in the ALiM programme across all groups. The results of the follow-up MST programme will be evaluated in due course, but Gaylene says that the impact hasn’t just been felt among those identified students, but also among their peers.
“We’re finding that the benefits sort of cross-pollinate across other learning areas. Even if these kids don’t make a shift in data, they acquire positive learning behaviours and confidence – which are outcomes that are hard to measure. Teachers are noticing that after involvement with the programme, kids are speaking about their learning, they’re justifying their conclusions, all the stuff that they never used to do. They’re simply less passive about their learning. They’re more engaged and motivated, and you can’t measure that.”
Ava, 9 years:
“MST sessions have made me feel more confident in maths. I have got better at explaining my thinking. I like how we work in groups to solve problems and we get to use lots of materials.”
Frances, 9 years:
“I have got better at maths, and learnt that it’s ok to make mistakes. We have learnt that it’s not about the answer but how you solved the problem. We get to use our own strategies to solve problems and if other people in the group don’t understand we have to show our thinking to them. It’s fun and I like that it is a small group.”
“My child is more confident in maths and often comes home excited to share what they have learnt. They seem to know more ways to solve problems and can explain what they did to solve the problem.”
Principal Brent Gray:
“What Ginny’s been doing with this group has been nothing short of amazing really. [We identified a group of children] who have been perennial strugglers, who have had a lot of support in the past, a lot of intervention, and honestly we went into this with a fair bit of scepticism, but the results have truly been incredible. I think that’s probably down to the work that Ginny has done in ensuring that she’s worked really closely with the parents, and the buy-in she’s been able to get from students. This has caused a huge re-think into what we’ll do going forward as a school.”
Maryann Heaven, deputy principal, teacher, new entrant and year 1:
“I’ve had five of Ginny’s group of six before, and I thought she was crazy to begin with, as we’ve thrown all sorts of funding at these kids before. So the success she’s had has really made us think about where we’re going next.”
Jack, ALL student:
“We had a wee chart so that we could see how much reading we’d done in the holidays, and did you see how much we did? It was heaps! We learnt so much, we learnt a lot about reading sometimes without actually reading!”
Aimee, Jack’s mum:
“I had a little boy who was very negative about everything to do with reading; I had to force him to do his reading homework, and he just had no confidence. We saw a huge change with him being [part of the ALL group]. All of a sudden, we could see that he was becoming more confident in himself, in his everyday life as well as in the school community. He now chooses to read in his own time, and he’s reading chapter books. We’re just so rapt, it’s just been brilliant. We really enjoyed being part of the homework aspect of being in the WizzKids too; Jack would bring home games which the whole family really enjoyed.”
BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, email@example.com
Posted: 10:08 pm, 15 June 2015
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