Grandiose theories or received wisdoms may not translate or work for your learners; contextualisation is key!
This was a common theme across the projects we were mentoring and supporting; implementing a ‘one size fits all’ scheme of work, or applying an ‘off the shelf’ intervention was not always straightforward. There were different reasons for this disconnect between established, ‘evidence informed’ interventions and the ‘grass roots’ reality of everyday life in FE.
In some cases, there were contextual differences, so suggested strategies for educational improvement did not always appreciate or meet FE-based learners’ needs.
For example, when one of our research teams (an FE college with a high proportion of GCSE resit learners, many of whom have SEND), began to implement and evaluate the impact of Oakes and Griffin’s (2016) VESPA strategies (a mindset tool originally devised for A Level students), they found they needed to adapt and contextualise activities so that those strategies worked for their learners.
The team did this in a variety of ways, including working with learners in small groups to explore and discuss the wider factors that shaped their everyday lives and well-being. However, the team discovered that, before learners could access VESPA, they first needed to understand what being ready to learn looks and feels like.
Another project focused on exploring active learning strategies for ESOL learners, building on recommendations from Ofsted to develop these practices. However, when the team began to ask learners which teaching and learning approaches they would like to experience, the team quickly realised there were cultural barriers to overcome. These barriers not only related to some ESOL learners’ active participation in lessons, but also their engagement in participatory approaches to teaching and learning.
In some cases, learners worried that their ideas and opinions would be perceived as a criticism of their teacher: this was something they felt was unacceptable! With this in mind, practitioners had to develop creative and innovative ways of eliciting learner feedback. They also had to scrutinise received educational wisdoms about ‘best practice’ and ‘what works’ for learners, developing instead a series of active approaches for teaching and learning that understood the specific, contextual needs of the learners they were working with.
In some cases, projects found they were able to offer a direct challenge to HE-generated research about teaching and learning, strengthening the case for contextualised understandings of teaching and learning in FE. In a similar vein to previous research stemming from OTLA projects (ETF, 2018; McPartland, 2018), teams were able to refute Hattie’s (2015) assertion that volunteers and learning support practitioners have little impact upon learner progress. Conversely, the team found that when structured development programmes were put into place for volunteers, and were welcomed and valued as part of the teaching and learning team, their work with Entry Level and ESOL learners had considerable impact.
The team found that through volunteer supported engagement at lunch clubs and gardening projects, learners grew in confidence, improved their attendance and made accelerated progress through their functional skills qualifications. For these learners, value-added became obvious and engagement in volunteer-led projects supported both literacy and social development.