What do we do as teachers when we are trying to help a difficult class make the progress we want them to?
Teaching is an unremittingly harsh profession at times; teachers will spend hours worrying over the class or classes that aren’t doing as well as they should. As a result, it is too easy to fall down a rabbit hole of ‘interventions’ that we convince ourselves are a panacea. I know that, in the past, this has resulted in me undertaking some ridiculous activities, which quickly became millstones. These ploys, or binterventions, took up unnecessary chunks of time, with very little obvious difference to my students’ progress. What had happened, in my ceaseless concern, was that I had lost sight of the day to day, simple things that actually do make a difference. These are the winterventions: no magical cure but good, solid teaching. I was reminded of these two things recently when I asked my colleagues about their intervention experiences. So, for your delectation at a time in the school year when mocks are in abundance and it is easy to get lost, here’s the best (and worst) of them:
1. More marking
I have been utterly guilty of this one in the past. My go-to panic response has been to mark exercise books relentlessly: swathes of green pen over numerous pages asking students endless questions to respond to. Obviously, it is important to gauge a student’s progress but that does not mean that every piece of work has to be marked in detail. Verbal feedback in lessons is just as valuable. If work does ‘have’ to be marked, then to what purpose? How is it moving the student forward?
2. Working harder than the students (often by producing ‘revision materials’)
Harriet Lambert (Maths) summed this one up nicely:
“Last year I trialled something new and a little bit different. After seeing lots of the ‘group marking sheets’ making the rounds on Twitter, I decided to take a similar, slightly more creative route with my year 11s.
I produced 3 double sided posters (one for each paper) with detailed diagrams and solutions to the questions from the mock that they should have gained full marks on (from content already taught). For each topic, I also added in a ‘new question to try’ for the students who did not perform well in this question. I added in their names in various categories (superstars etc) and ensured no student only appeared in a low category etc as I did not want to damage their confidence.
They took me ages, and although I had struggled with this class’ attitude toward their learning, I thought the personalisation and the clear effort I put in may win them round. It didn’t.
Students were advised to use these in revision sessions, yet I never saw one. I offered to mark any ‘new questions to try’ and no student provided me with these. They quite simply were added to a pile of ‘revision stuff’ never to be looked at again.”
The lessons learnt here? Don’t get too carried away by a new idea that you come across and, if a piece of work is worth doing, students should be doing it themselves.
3. Endless revision sessions
The teacher urge/ panic to ‘do more’ can often materialise as ‘give up more of my time to lecture content’ (more commonly known as revision sessions). No one would deny that revision sessions can have impact, but if they lack purpose and are only attended by those students who don’t necessarily need it, then they are not a productive use of a teacher’s time. Mark Enser (Geography) has a targeted approach to revision sessions. He says, “If something is worth doing in a revision session it is almost certainly worth doing as part of the normal lesson when everyone who will benefit from it is there. Revision sessions, if needed at all, should be highly targeted intervention sessions with an invited group of students who need support with something the rest of the class doesn’t. Anything else becomes no more than a way of increasing curriculum time.” This idea isn’t new; a recent TES article by Alex Quigley discussed what quality revision is and the impact that it has on teachers and students alike. Mark’s approach is another reminder that it is the daily things we do that actually make a difference in the long run.
The alternative: Winterventions
1. Keep setting the bar high
When Serena Adams’ English class were despondent about engaging with a text that they were more than capable of discussing, Serena stepped up the pressure:
“I uploaded a university style essay on ‘How is tension created in Act 1 of ‘A View from the Bridge’?’ for their active reading session at the start of their next lesson. I made it clear that it was a university style essay because I wanted them to see that they are capable of that standard of work. They sat and read in silence and whilst I prompted them, they wrote down their own questions and ideas. Suddenly, they were awake. I moved around the room listening to them discuss: the sexual tensions between Eddie and Catherine; how Marco challenges Eddie only through his physical dialogue rather than verbal; how Eddie is left feeling emasculated and the symbolism behind Catherine lighting Eddie’s cigar and its phallic nature. It was incredible!
I then put on the board some challenging vocabulary that I wanted them to try and include in their discussions and because the quality of their talk had improved so much and I could see their confidence only developing, I edited my lesson for them to write a written response to the same question focusing on stage directions that they had chosen from the end of that Act.”
Sereena’s final comments encapsulate why consistent challenge is important: “A combination of raising the bar whilst ensuring they knew they were capable of more and providing a little bit of scaffold through the vocabulary list, [means that] they have all taken themselves to GCSE level.”
2. Keep modelling work
This is a familiar idea that has been discussed more than once on Heathfield TeachShare. Students need to know what excellent work looks like, and also be able to articulate why that work is good in order to produce excellent work themselves. Here is an example of how Katie Greaves (English) starts her lessons to help students develop their exam skills:
She says: “At the start of every single lesson without fail, I display on the IWB a quotation from the text with the same set of guidance questions each time. Students have 5 minutes to write their responses, then we spend 5 minutes collaborating and sharing ideas together as a class… This is boosting confidence, developing a level of sophisticated vocabulary, supporting students to retain a larger number of quotations for the closed-text exam and is equipping them with the depth of analytical skills they need to succeed in the written exam.”
3. Build confidence
As mentioned above, building confidence is key to helping students make progress. Building skills through scaffolding and practice will empower students to attempt more difficult questions. Roxanne Collett has been noticing this impact in Science. “I’ve been working at improving exam technique, picking apart what a question is asking the students to do, and how they can access the full marks. This is mainly me running through the theory, looking at exam questions together, and then testing them individually. So far, everyone is making improvements.” Roxanne has particularly noticed the impact that this has had on less able students, who have gone on to try more difficult questions with their other Science teacher because they now have the confidence to attempt them, and consequently they are doing better in assessments. This is important when, previously, such students would have left questions completely blank, automatically losing marks in exams.
4. Know your students
Ultimately, whatever intervention you use will only be effective if you truly know your students (no, not more marking!). Sometimes this can mean an extra conversation. Richard Carter found it helpful with underachieving Year 12 politics students to talk to them 1 to 1 about their progress, identify the problems and barriers and create clear goals together to help them move forward.
So, what do we do as teachers when we are trying to help a difficult class make the progress we want them to? The answer is actually quite straight forward: don’t panic; don’t be lured into a spiral of ‘doing more’ but continue to deliver solid teaching every day. It will make a difference in the long run.
Emma Smith, History