Thinking about thinking in the classroom

Issue: Volume 96, Number 17

Posted: 25 September 2017
Reference #: 1H9exD

With the overarching aim of lifting achievement in literacy and increasing agency, Step Up the Talk is an inquiry project that helps teachers critically reflect on the way they engage students in the learning process.

A project to examine and improve the way teachers speak to students about their own learning has led to positive changes at Glenavon School in Blockhouse Bay, Auckland.

Kia Piki te Kōrero or Step Up the Talk is an inquiry project sparked by a master’s thesis undertaken by Glenavon’s deputy principal Paul Pirihi in 2014.

The work was also informed by Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour observations when working with students referred for special learning needs, and discussions with classroom teachers.

From this information it was evident that many students at the school and in particular students who were making slower progress than their peers, were passive recipients in the learning process.

After observing teachers in their work, school leadership noted that classroom talk was a possible factor that could make a difference for all learners and especially those who were working below and well below expectations.

Teachers did not seem to be confident in their understanding of feedback to learners and were unfamiliar with the concept of meta-thinking to engage students in the learning process. There seemed to be an underlying assumption that all learners automatically have the thinking structures to make sense of their learning.

The 18-month project was supported by a Ministry of Education Teacher-led Innovation Fund, which provides resource for expert help: in this case, Evaluation Associates and Massey University.

“My original study was based on teacher feedback on some written tasks with a group of year 5 and 6 students at another school,” explains Paul.

“The findings I got from that was that there was a lot of teacher-dominated talk in the classroom, but not so much child-led talking.

“When I came back to Glenavon I did some research in our classrooms here and found a similar pattern. The children were still fully involved in the teaching and learning that went on, but I felt there was room for us to boost their voices, and therefore student agency, throughout the school.”

Paul says this work came in the form of teacher professional development and school-wide discussion and support to challenge the underlying assumption that all learners automatically have the thinking structures to make sense of their learning.

A particular focus was on improving the way teachers gave feedback to children, and developing  the concept of meta-thinking to help boost engagement in the learning process.

“Everyone was 100 per cent behind it,” he says.

Principal Phil Toomer agrees.

“Because the project was teacher led, from my perspective as principal I saw a real and authentic ‘buy in’ from the staff. The inquiry was driven by the teachers, for the teachers. This made it a very powerful model of PD,” he says.

With the intention of strengthening students’ agency, the improved ‘teacher talk’ itself describes what is being learnt, how it is being learnt, why it is being learnt and where else the learning might be useful.

“The students are more aware of what they are learning and how their learning connects to real life,” says Phil.

“This has seen a dramatic lift in engagement and achievement. By lifting the profile of ‘learning talk’ in classrooms, students are aware of what learning is taking place, and what their next steps are.

The practice of talking about learning in classes is now embedded and is second nature to the teachers that went through the project.”

Strengthening links

Described by Paul as a “close-knit whānau and multicultural school,” Glenavon is a full primary with strong community connections.

“It’s a family school. Everyone knows everyone well and it’s a great little school with a real community feeling.”

At the beginning of the project, Step Up the Talk was introduced to Glenavon whānau at a school hui.

Paul explained the project’s purpose and the vital role parents could play in strengthening their tamariki’s learning.

“I spoke about how the project was going to run over 2016 and how it was vital that parents talked to their children at home about what they learnt that day at school, how they had learnt it, why they had learnt it and how that learning might be used to help them in their future,” he says.

Both at the beginning and the end of the school year, parents were surveyed about how they felt their children understood their own learning.

Phil Toomer says the survey results showed that parents now feel better informed about what goes on in the classroom.

“The whānau survey results from the project showed that parents now feel a lot more informed about their children’s learning and that more and more conversations are taking place at home in regards to what they are doing at school,” he says.

“Our parent community is hugely supportive of our school, and this project has given them tools to directly help their children at home.”

Teacher-led Innovation Fund

The Teacher-led Innovation Fund (TLIF) allows teachers to inquire into new practices and to let these flourish.

TLIF supports teams of qualified teachers from early learning services, ngā kōhanga reo, schools and kura to collaboratively develop innovative practices that improve learning outcomes.

Education initiatives in the past have often been led by academics, working with teachers. But the TLIF flips this: it’s designed for teams of teachers working together to improve learning outcomes for students. Guided by a project leader, these teachers can call on academics and community experts to work alongside them.

The TLIF supports teams of teachers to develop innovative practices that improve learning outcomes – especially for students who are Māori, Pasifika, have special education needs, and/or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Round 4 opens in November for schools, kura, CoL and early learning services.


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 am, 25 September 2017

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