Using teacher-led research as a development tool to challenge pre-conceived notions about the teaching of gifted and talented students
University of Reading, Institute of Education
Janet Bates, Judith Weaver, Nicola Young and Su
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'.
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.
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
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:
Concept mapping and mind mapping - learners are encouraged to interconnect ideas and explain the connections;
Verbalise the thinking process as it takes place; learners can do this in pairs, and it often helps them to slow down and explore different avenues of thought; Ask able learners to discuss their findings with the rest of a group or class as a plenary at the end of a lesson.
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:
Allowing students to determine their preferred learning styles;
Building a range of learning styles into sequences of lessons; Building a range of learning opportunities into our lessons by using the 'Must, Should, Could' framework for devising activities.
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:
Sorting and ranking activities
In English lessons, for example, words with subtle differences can be rank ordered. Fine distinctions between degrees of words such as 'happiness' can be shown by adjectives including 'cheerful', 'merry', 'ecstatic', etc. Words are written on cards and given to learners to sort as a kinaesthetic activity.
In Science lessons, words describing objects with different sizes could be written on the cards, e.g. planet, moon, star, and again sorted kinaesthetically.
Encouraging learners to rank order, whether it be words, feelings or ideas, is a particularly effective higher order thinking strategy. It encourages learners to make decisions, to justify their ideas and it highlights the fact that often there is no 'right' or 'wrong' answer. This is particularly important for encouraging explorative learning.
In any subject, learners can keep updated vocabulary lists of both general and subject specific words. Teachers should make a point of using a wide vocabulary, explaining them and encouraging students to collect words and use them as a matter of course. At the start of a new topic, teachers can immediately raise awareness of previous work and quickly assess prior learning by holding up a series of words and asking learners to write the meanings on mini whiteboards and display them, as a competition.
In any subject, teachers can set up word walls and encourage learners to add new vocabulary to the display. The wall can be used for general vocabulary or for a specific topic.
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.
At the beginning of a topic, ask learners to write briefly what they already know about the subject, followed by some questions that they would like to ask about it. This often works better if carried out in pairs. The questions should be reviewed with the class at the end of the topic, to see if their questions have been answered. The same technique works effectively at the end of an individual lesson - ask the learners to write down any questions they have about the topic of the lesson, collect them in, and ensure that any queries are answered in the course of the next lesson;
Give the learners the answer to a question or a series of questions, and ask them to devise the question or questions. Learners are accustomed to teachers asking the questions; real thinking is encouraged when the learners have to work out effective and specific questions; Ask learners to devise questions about what they have learned, as part of a plenary - the questions can be used to start the next lesson; Value all sorts of answers to open questions as 'good thinking' and equally valid, rather than only giving credit for the answer 'on the teacher's agenda'. In particular, many able learners dislike being told 'You don't need to know that now' when they ask a question. They should be given some idea of how to find an answer, even if it is impossible to discuss in class at that moment; Change the proportion of questions asked by learners and teachers in lessons so that learners ask far more and teachers far fewer. The traditional teacher led question and answer at the start of a lesson is often not the most effective way of immediately involving learners, yet the opening to a lesson is the most crucial thinking time; Resist 'thinking in boxes', and many learners' increasing desire to be spoon-fed as they move through secondary school; Build a secure learning environment, in which risk-taking and questioning is valued; Show learners that not immediately succeeding at a task, or answering a question 'wrongly', is not a failure in itself but an essential part of the learning process.
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.
We encouraged groups of learners to devise and play learning games. For example, Year 10 learners created Electricity games; their evaluations of the activity showed that they felt they had learned more effectively through the process of transferring learning to another genre;
We asked learners to rank order and justify responses. Year 10 learners who were about to discuss cruelty in relation to 'Lord of the Flies' were first asked to rank order a torture line of medieval punishments from the most severe to the least severe; this then led on to a philosophical discussion about 'What is cruelty?'; Learners were encouraged to role-play different characters within a scene. They then had to decide which character the students most empathised with, and why; Learners were asked to change written words into diagrams, or to reduce a page of text to only 10 words. English learners were asked to choose their three favourite words or phrases from a poem, and explain why they had chosen them - or to create a new poem from the random words on a page; Prediction activities worked well in both English and History, enhancing reading skills as well as the ability to conceptualise ideas; We avoided any traditional comprehension exercises and concentrated on activities that required learners to transfer their learning to a different genre; We introduced Memory mapping, concept mapping and mind mapping; History and English learners were hot seated as historical characters and questioned by the class.
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.
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.
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.
Challenging more able students should be an integral part of the everyday learning experience across the curriculum, rather than depending on specific enrichment and extension activities;
Many students, particularly the more able, value opportunities to become more fully involved in their own learning processes; and thus begin to understand that learning should be an active process; More able students need to experience 'failure' so that they become aware of the need to explore different avenues of thought; and that there is often no 'right' or 'wrong'; Students must be given opportunities to take part in activities in the classroom that will enable them to show their ability; a written response is not always a true test of ability, particularly for those with specific learning difficulties; Students need to be taught the value of questioning, and how to question effectively, rather than being left to acquire the skill for themselves by a process of osmosis; Students must be given opportunities to practice their questioning skills across the curriculum and in a safe environment, knowing that their contributions will be valued and that lines of enquiry will be opened up rather than closed down; Students often learn best through discussion and exploration with the teacher and with each other. These learning situations should be carefully managed, but not necessarily directed by, the teacher; Adding challenge to the learning situation in the classroom through targeting the higher order thinking skills is of immense benefit, not only to more able students, but to students of all abilities and ages. There should be no 'artificial ceilings' placed on learning; Most students value, and enjoy, activities that enable them to think creatively and originally; encouraging independence in learning; Teachers should be aware of the importance of their own language use in the classroom, both as a model for students, and to enable students to extend their language skills in order to gain access to more complex thinking and problem solving; Students should be encouraged to discuss the links between the learning in different areas of the curriculum, so that they view their learning experiences holistically, rather than in isolated subject 'pockets'.
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.
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