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Using teacher-led research as a development tool to challenge pre-conceived notions about the teaching of gifted and talented students

Trevor Davies
University of Reading, Institute of Education

Janet Bates, Judith Weaver, Nicola Young and Su Chamberlain
Teachers from Wokingham LEA

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13 September 2003
Creativity Special Interest Group

'We learn not by seeking to find some absolute truth, but by exploring where ideas lead'.

Abstract

Learning activities take place within a culture that Eagleton (2000) links to freedom and determinism; agency and endurance; change and identity. In UK schools, stakeholder forces have combined to result in formulaic approaches to teaching and learning in order that schools meet their legal and moral obligations. The teacher's task is to create islands of stability for learners whilst the pressures of social and cultural change buffet peoples' lives in society like twigs in a hurricane. Pope & Denicolo (2001, p. 18) remind us that dogma, whether political or philosophical blocks development and often generates non-productive argument and action. Since the content driven approach to the National Curriculum has been pre-dominant, teachers are wary of the perceived 'risks' of allowing students more autonomy in their learning. The adoption of League Tables and wide-ranging public accountability measures have further exacerbated this problem. Adopting a reflective research led approach to curriculum development can counter-balance these factors and aid teachers to develop a more balanced view of pedagogy.

One such group of teacher researchers, working within Wokingham LEA embarked on a DfES sponsored 'best practice scholarship' to establish key parameters to enhance provision for so called gifted and talented learners within the Authority. Eyre & Lowe (2002, p. 2) emphasise that meeting needs for gifted and talented learners is about building on good school provision, not providing something different. The research group decided that accessing the higher order thinking skills through the use of language in the classroom was the cornerstone to providing challenge for this group of learners. As the project developed, they became aware that an increased focus on challenging thinking through language was extending students of all ability levels within classes. They became clear that unexpectedly the needs of gifted and talented learners were not fundamentally different to those of other learners. However, much more emphasis needs to be given to questioning skills and a conscious focus on extending vocabulary, both for teachers and for learners. This then became central to their research.

The findings have allowed the researchers' schools to confidently amend their curriculum and to engage in meaningful professional development centred on childrens' learning. Most importantly, the research was motivating, fun and authentic for both the teachers and the learners. An action research group has been formed as a result in one large secondary school and a major dissemination programme has begun throughout the authority.

Introduction

The project was initiated as a consequence of Wokingham AST (Advanced Skills Teacher) work with the Gifted and Talented learners within the LEA, at both primary and secondary level. It soon became apparent that challenge within the classroom is the key to extending all pupils across the curriculum, including the most able; primarily through the stimulation of learners' thinking skills. Extending the most able cannot be solely a 'bolt on' process of enrichment and extension, but needs to be integrated into lesson planning across subject and age boundaries. It is increasingly clear that the introduction of The National Curriculum, with the attendant emphasis on League Tables and Levels, has led to an emphasis on the teaching of the content of the curriculum and to a lack of 'risk taking' in the classroom. This has often been at the expense of actively involving learners in their own learning and raising their awareness of transferable skills. However, as Phyllida Salmon says of learners, 'we can, it seems, develop understanding early through our own enquiries. We cannot undertake new ventures within the terms of someone else's initiative.'1

The project was undertaken by a team of four teachers from two neighbouring comprehensive schools, one of which was mixed and the other for girls. The instinct that informed the research was that gifted learners were not being well served by the traditional approach of providing them with 'more of the same'. We were also very aware that the language used in the classroom can either close down or open up learner responses. This led to an initial focus on the importance of developing language skills within the classroom. It was clear in both schools that 'some (learners) have not developed the traditional skills in language expression that the school culture expects for demonstrating exceptional thinking and learning ability...' and that 'the teachers' challenge is to hook the learner with interesting and personally relevant learning and not underestimate the learner's potential.'2

Research Design

A carefully developed and managed research strategy involved lesson observations, learner questionnaires and learner self-assessments was implemented. The research clarified the importance of using language within the classroom in order to increase learners' awareness of their thinking processes. The strategies selected by a teacher must depend on a very clear awareness of the learning purposes of the lesson, which should include extending the cognitive abilities of the learners. The development of questioning skills and an awareness of how and when to use different question styles are central to the development of both learners and teachers.

The idea of challenge in the classroom for all learners became a key feature of our research. In addition, we were keenly aware that it is vitally important for able learners to experience 'failure' in order to learn how to learn, and that they should be given every opportunity to try a number of different strategies for thinking through to success, rather than to achieve success effortlessly. Research has shown (Shore 2000) that able learners have, to a higher degree, the ability to reflect on their own thinking processes (metacognition) and to monitor their own thinking in increasingly sophisticated ways. They need to see the importance of perseverance and of applying new skills in different circumstances, so that learning becomes an overt rather than an implicit process. The language used in the classroom is the key to all of this, as even the most able learners can be shown how to progress in their linguistic skills across the curriculum, making links between the different areas. This can be achieved in a number of different ways:

In any of these activities it is important that the teacher acts as a 'learning mediator' by asking questions that will extend the learners' thinking; such as 'What makes you think that?' or 'How can you justify that idea?' Learners also should be taught how and when to ask these learning questions.

The strategies that we tried can be used in any subject area, and help to highlight the importance of developing language use across the curriculum. 'There is so often an assumption that these (able) learners have already been fully taught how to read and write by the time they arrive at secondary school, and they require no further teaching.'3 However, modeling and scaffolding of written and spoken language use enables learners to improve their reflection on their own learning.

Identifying the need: developing a quality learning experience for all

From the outset we were aware, through our interviews with able learners,that they are often dissatisfied with the provision that is made for them within schools. Aside from specific 'activity days', they tend to dislike being singled out and taken out of the classroom and away from their peers. It is important that 'Gifted educational programmes must begin to pull away from a separate and segregated role to become integrated with the total school programme.' In this way the needs of all learners can be met, as through challenging able learners in the classroom, teachers provide challenge for all their learners and hence raise achievement and self esteem. We felt it was crucial that we found strategies to 'open students up' rather than 'shut them down', and that there should be no artificial ceilings on learning.

Within the very first few weeks of our research we realised that 'raising the stakes' for gifted and talented learners benefited all learners within the classroom and that we were beginning to use a wider range of strategies than in our originally planned repertoire. As the research progressed, we talked to learners informally about their own learning, initially concentrating on gifted learners but then speaking to learners of all abilities. This made us increasingly aware the importance of giving students access to information about different learning strategies, and encouraging them to investigate ways in which they themselves could learn more successfully. In addition to the strategies already outlined, we tried the following techniques:

Promoting effective language skills

The starting point was twofold: to extend learners' learning vocabulary and to enhance both teachers' and learners' questioning skills. We felt that learners' progress was being impeded through a lack of active and responsible involvement in the learning situation, and that learners need to be specifically taught the linguistic skills necessary for independent and challenging learning.

1. We sought to introduce strategies to encourage the active learning of vocabulary, particularly of low frequency words. We trialled the following techniques:

2. The role of questioning skills

We encouraged the learners to be aware of the difference between open and closed questions, and used open questions as much as possible in our own teaching. We discovered that many learners lack real questioning skills, including the ability to build on questions and their answers in order to gain specific information; and will therefore often resort to guesswork. Part of our research involved tracking specific learners through a typical day at school and noting the number of 'learning' questions that were asked of teachers, as opposed to 'functional' questions. In each case, the students involved asked no more than two such questions over the course of the day; perhaps reflecting how teacher- led many lessons are, with the learners as passive recipients of knowledge. We therefore tried a number of techniques to increase learners' involvement in the work in progress, and to encourage them to question rather than to simply accept.

In these activities, our aims were informed by our own experience, and by our reading about the experiences of other teachers. For example, 'In a year 6 Maths lesson, because the task for the class was challenging and intriguing, these young people continued to work things out for themselves, their mistaken thinking proving an impetus to further thought rather than a 'failure'...Yet this experience of failure is itself essential... it is the unsuccessful outcomes of putting our understanding to the test which takes the learning endeavour further.'4

Integrating learning processes through developing thinking skills

As our research progressed we diverged into promoting the use of language through thinking skills. We became increasingly aware that 'It is thinking that crosses official boundaries ... that makes connections between previously unrelated ideas ... which is most likely to lead to new, wider dimensions of understanding.'5 We based our research initially on developing strategies to increase the use of the higher order thinking skills, as defined by Harold Bloom (1956). We encouraged learners to question their own learning and explicitly introduced the concept of higher order thinking to our learners. In our observations of primary colleagues, we saw learner friendly versions of Bloom's Taxonomy displayed in classrooms and commented on by the learners. This concept could easily be transferred to the secondary classroom and would help to highlight to both teachers and learners that 'thinking' can be taught and acquired, rather than something that is just left to chance!

The social context for learning

We became much more aware of the value of collaborative learning in the classroom; that learners need to be given many opportunities to explore learning in conversation and discussion with one another. This is a valuable strategy both for developing questioning skills, and giving students the confidence to articulate and justify ideas.

The learners responded positively to this range of activities, and enjoyed taking more responsibility for their own learning. Having taught learners to think about their own learning, we found that they were more prepared to take risks. For example, more students were prepared to ask and answer questions than previously, without fear of their peers. They seemed also to have increased their conceptual understanding of the subjects they were studying. They were more likely now to ask how and why, rather than what?. They were more prepared to look for links between topics, to hypothesise and predict in a range of situations.

Impact on Teaching

The ideas outlined in this paper, with the emphasis on their practical use in the classroom, have been disseminated over the past two years within Wokingham through a series of 'Gifted and Talented Network Meetings'. Both primary and secondary teachers have voluntarily attended these meetings and have frequently reported back about the impact of trying the different strategies in the classroom. One noticeable comment has been that it 'puts the fun back into teaching'; as Deborah Eyre (2002) comments, 'Learning should be fun and, if the development of ability or talent loses that element of fun, then we are unlikely to produce rounded, fulfilled individuals.'6 It has been clear that teachers have appreciated ideas that have led to a greater focus on creativity and challenge in the classroom, and that they have at times been surprised by the learners' very positive responses to the increased reponsibility that they have taken for their own learning.

In one secondary school, we set up an 'Enrichment of Learning Group' composed of interested teachers from most curriculum areas, and undertook informal action research in the classroom across the age and ability range. The teachers involved commented that over the course of the year they had become much more reflective about their own methodology, and more aware of the learning outcomes for learners, as opposed to practical outcomes. The need for learners to become involved in exploratory learning was highlighted, as was the value of collaborative learning, questioning and discussion; managed, but not led by, the teacher. Above all, the teachers reported on the increased motivation amongst learners, and their own greater awareness of potential amongst those they taught. It is a significant fact that 'for gifted children the requirements of the school curriculum, deemed appropriate for their age, can be achieved effortlessly and are not challenging'7. Very able learners often cannot 'shine' if they are given no opportunity to do so; their ability may then go unnoticed by their teachers, which can lead to underachievement and disenchantment with the whole school system.

Learner responses

At the beginning of the project a range of learners of different ages and genders were asked to answer a brief questionnaire about 'Words in the Classroom'. One key finding from the responses to the questionnaire related to the strategies used by learners to learn and understand the meanings of new words. Learners of all ages commented that teachers' overt use of, and discussion of, new words was the most significant method of extending their vocabularies. An interesting response about answering questions in class focused on the risks involved in being judged to be 'wrong' in front of their peers. This highlights the importance for all teachers of creating a safe environment in each classroom, where all contributions are accepted and valued as part of explorative learning.

Gifted 'Advanced Level' learners were asked in a seminar to discuss aspects of their learning throughout their school careers. Many felt dissatisfaction with certain elements of their learning experience; particularly when they had been given more of the same kind of worksheet to complete when they finished their work quickly, or were expected to write four pages when everyone else was asked to write two. They also resented responses to their questions that disallowed wide-ranging enquiry or lateral thinking, and presented a ceiling to their learning. The learners expressed discontent with the feelings of boredom and frustration that were too often a feature of their learning experiences from Primary School onwards. They were aware that many teachers were, as they phrased it 'teaching to an agenda' and were unwilling or unable to digress from that agenda. Able boys expressed dissatisfaction with being expected to complete work that they deemed to be 'useless' because they already knew it, or felt that the worksheets they had to complete for homework were simply being used to fill in the homework time because that was the school's expectation, rather than extend learning in any way. This in turn led to feelings of boredom, failure to complete work, and to underachievement. It became clear to us that able learners in particular need homework tasks that fulfill a clear learning purpose and enable them to make overt progress in the acquisition of skills or knowledge.

Conclusion

The research itself took place over the course of one year, however we have continued to develop and extend the strategies that we first trialled during that year. Our learners have commented on increased feelings of motivation and a greater awareness of the importance of learning in their own lives. We all like to know 'what's in it for me?', and this is undoubtedly true of learners, who too often feel that lessons in school are divorced from their real lives and activities 'There is no way to help a learner to be disciplined, active and thoroughly engaged unless he perceives a problem to be a problem, or whatever is to be learned to be worth learning. It is sterile and ridiculous to attempt to release the enquiry power of learners by initiating studies that hold no interest for them.'8 It is our responsibility as teachers to ensure that learners are given transferable skills for life, and that they have the linguistic skills necessary to access learning at all levels.

Key Findings:

Potential for Further Research

The whole area of questioning and independent learning is vast and needs further exploration in the classroom; in particular, the active and knowledgeable involvement of students in higher order thinking activities. The impact of the National Curriculum has tended to lead to an emphasis on the teaching of content rather than of skills, therefore employers are now complaining that too many students lack transferable skills for lifelong learning. The government is now trying to shift the emphasis through the impact of the Primary Strategy, and a much greater focus on creativity in the classroom. However, many teachers are extremely wary of 'tweaking' their approaches to teaching strategies in order to give more responsibility to the students and promote independent thinking. There is always the fear of accountability and judgement by results; therefore it is understandable that many teachers are wary of taking risks, or feel that they have no time to try new ideas. Classroom based research that fully involves the students within a school or an LEA, helps to persuade other teachers of the worth of new ideas or strategies. This leads to a revitalization of teaching that can only enhance the learning of the students.

References

Bloom, B.S. (Ed) (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Book 1 cognitive domain. New York (17th Printing, 1972): David McKay Company Inc.

Callahan, M. (2001)Educational Leadership Volume 59

Dean, G. (2002) English and Literacy in 'Curriculum Provision for the Gifted and Talented in the Secondary School'

Eagleton, T. (2000). The idea of culture. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eyre, D & Lowe, H. (2002) Curriculum Provision for the Gifted and Talented in the Secondary School. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Maher (1969) The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York

Pope, M. & Denicolo, M. (2001) Transformative education: Personal Construct approaches to practice and research. UK.: Whurr Publishers.

Postman, & Weingartner, (1971) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. London

Salmon, P. (1995) Psychology in the Classroom. London: Cassell.

Shore B.M. (2000) Metacognition and flexibility: 'Qualitative differences in how gifted children think' in Friedman R.C. & Shore B.M. (eds) Talents Unfolding: Cognition and Development Washington DC: American Psychological Association

Notes:

  1. Salmon, P. (1995) Psychology in the Classroom. London: Cassell
  2. Callahan, M. (2001) Educational Leadership Volume 59 p. 43
  3. Dean, G. (2002) English and Literacy in 'Curriculum Provision for the Gifted and Talented in the Secondary School' p. 33
  4. Salmon, P. (1995) Psychology in the Classroom, London: Cassell p.69.
  5. Maher (1969) The Psychology of Personal Constructs New York : p.62.
  6. Eyre, D & Lowe, H. (2002) Curriculum Provision for the Gifted and Talented in the Secondary School p.21
  7. Eyre, D & Lowe, H. (2002) Curriculum Provision for the Gifted and Talented in the Secondary School p.20
  8. Postman, & Weingartner, (1971) Teaching as a Subversive Activity p. 59

This document was added to the Education-line database on 03 October 2003