Resit Resilience: a curriculum-based approach to developing self-belief, confidence and meta-cognition skills of GCSE English Language students

The Sheffield College

This project was designed to explore whether and how the explicit delivery of ‘mindsets for learning’ activities impacted on the confidence, resilience and achievements of learners on our GCSE English Language programmes.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK].

Summary

Because of their intrinsic lack of self-belief and motivation, the struggle to engage students in the development of English skills is a major issue at The Sheffield College, just as it is at centres across the country.

A group of us working here recognised that although some teachers across our diverse college were employing different approaches towards developing resilience in learners, others were not addressing this fundamental underlying issue explicitly. We therefore decided to engage in research.

This involved first accessing literatures, some of which suggested that supporting students in the development of their confidence and self-belief, combined with a focus on their meta-cognition and self-regulation skills, might impact positively on students’ progress. It also involved our designing a Scheme of Work and set of associated resources to embed within GCSE English Language and Functional Skills delivery.

Rationale

Our aim was to research the impact of explicitly tackling the complex issue of learners’ attitudes towards learning, essentially their capacity for developing resilience. The situation was that, despite being highly skilled practitioners, many of our teachers struggled to engage students who exhibited disengaged behaviours within the classroom.

We also recognised that for many learners the Condition of Funding was also reinforcing their lack of self-belief and sense of self-worth in relation to learning: this condition requires 16-19 year olds to repeat GCSE examinations until they achieve the qualification or are no longer required to do so.

Similarly, for adult students returning to learning after failing at school, a lack of confidence often created a significant barrier to learning. And, whilst many of our teachers addressed learner resilience quite naturally in the classroom through their skilful use of the language of motivation, as a teaching team we were not necessarily exploring such engagement issues explicitly and systematically.

Consequently, we decided to collaborate in designing a Scheme of Work and a set of associated resources, with the intention of delivering them every week within a variety of English classes. Our aim was to assess the impact of such an approach on outcomes for the following people:

• 16-19 year old students studying GCSE English Language, across a diverse range of Study Programmes, and
• Adult students studying GCSE English Language, or Functional Skills English

Approach

The main focus of the project was to target any student who was working with a member of our core team of teachers whose main responsibilities included the delivery of GCSE English Language to Study Programme students.

The lead tutor had developed a Scheme of Work and an initial set of activities to be shared with teachers at a project training event before the start of the academic year. Teachers were encouraged to adapt these resources to suit the needs of their students and to accommodate their own different approaches to learning and teaching.

Teachers then delivered the activities to students whose programme of study included: Media and Performing Arts, Construction, Engineering, Plumbing and Motor Vehicle, Health and Social Care, Hair and Beauty, Sport and Uniformed Public Services. The activities were also used with adult students studying either GCSE English Language or Functional Skills English.

The students first engaged in an on-line assessment activity, which we used to gauge their levels of confidence and attitudes towards learning. It also provided teachers with a powerful basis to explore with individual students how their past experiences of, and attitudes towards learning influenced their current perspectives. Learners then engaged in mindset activities. Such activities were usually delivered weekly, before a break, and lasted between 5 and 10 minutes.

The main focus of the project was to target any student who was working with a member of our core team of teachers whose main responsibilities included the delivery of GCSE English Language to Study Programme students.

The lead tutor had developed a Scheme of Work and an initial set of activities to be shared with teachers at a project training event before the start of the academic year. Teachers were encouraged to adapt these resources to suit the needs of their students and to accommodate their own different approaches to learning and teaching.

Teachers then delivered the activities to students whose programme of study included: Media and Performing Arts, Construction, Engineering, Plumbing and Motor Vehicle, Health and Social Care, Hair and Beauty, Sport and Uniformed Public Services. The activities were also used with adult students studying either GCSE English Language or Functional Skills English.

The students first engaged in an on-line assessment activity, which we used to gauge their levels of confidence and attitudes towards learning. It also provided teachers with a powerful basis to explore with individual students how their past experiences of, and attitudes towards learning influenced their current perspectives. Learners then engaged in mindset activities. Such activities were usually delivered weekly, before a break, and lasted between 5 and 10 minutes.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Teachers involved with the project reported that their engagement with it has had a profound impact on their practice and their perceptions of themselves as teachers.

The current situation was that, although they were all highly skilled in employing a range of strategies to encourage students to engage in their work, no one in the team prior to joining the project had taken such a systematic and focused approach to encouraging students to challenge their self-perceptions and associated attitudes towards learning.

Through being involved in the project, teachers were now working together; the aim was to adapt and develop resources that would engage their learners in the development of positive attitudes towards themselves and learning.

It is important to note that involvement in the project initially had a negative impact on one teacher, inhibiting her exploration with students of their mindsets for learning. Project leads provided the tutor with support, and she was encouraged to adapt the resources to suit her delivery style.

For the rest of the team the impact upon their professional practice was very positive. It was not only productive in helping them to develop much more open relationships with students early in the academic year, but also enhanced their perceptions of themselves as practitioners.

Teachers reported a range of highly positive changes in themselves and their practice. They confirmed that the explicit addressing of learners’ resilience in classroom-based activities has:

  • Encouraged them to consider their language, what they said and how they said it more carefully: the aim was to enable students to reframe their learning experiences much more positively;
  • Enabled a refocusing towards a more student-centred approach to learning, teaching and assessment;
  • Encouraged a more holistic view of students;
  • Put more focus on getting to know the students and their relationship to learning early in the academic year, which in turn has enabled students to perceive their teachers in a more realistic and constructive way
  • Encouraged teachers to identify very small steps in learning, helping both learner and teacher to frame progress in positive and meaningful ways;
  • Developed practitioners’ sense of professional identity, so they perceived themselves from a pastoral as well as curriculum delivery perspective.
  • Importantly, involvement in the project has also given teachers the confidence to take an action research approach to other aspects of teaching, learning and assessment.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The manager prioritised the project for discussion at weekly team meetings and CPD events. This ensured that teachers could frequently discuss and explore any emerging issues or challenges in the delivery of the activities. Involvement in the project has enabled teachers to:

  • Engage in Continuing Professional Development with colleagues from other institutions across the sector
  • Explore with colleagues, strategies to use with students which will develop their self-esteem, meta-cognition and self-regulation in learning skills
  • Collaborate in developing activities which are not necessarily explicitly linked to the curriculum
  • Share their practice with Functional Skills tutors in vocational areas
  • Adapt their delivery approach to ensure that a more holistic approach to the development of students’ skills is embedded within their practice.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Due to the short time scale of the project, it is too early to provide attendance and achievement data; however, it has become clear that the explicit addressing in class of mindsets for learning has enabled some students to:

  • develop confidence in their learning earlier in the academic year than is usually expected
  • experience an increased belief in their ability to make the next steps in their career pathway
  • increase the value they place in progress and education
  • develop a better ability to overcome significant barriers to learning, such as exam anxiety
  • increase younger learners’ self-esteem, particularly in relation to perceptions of their own intelligence
  • decrease their engagement in negative self-talk in relation to their ability to learn and make progress in English
  • It has also enabled them to:
    o be more positive in ways of talking about their work and themselves in relation to it
    o visualise their future lives and careers and the steps they need to take in order to reach them
    o open up an early and meaningful dialogue with their teachers in relation to the way they perceive themselves in learning.
  • Importantly, involvement in the project has also demonstrated:
    o An increased confidence in adult learners in their potential to succeed, despite having very low self-esteem in relation to learning
  • Adult students, as expected, engaged more fully with the activities because of their intrinsic motivation. As well as helping adult learners develop their confidence and self-belief, mindset activities have also helped individuals to address and identify strategies to deal with obstacles which they might encounter throughout their learning journey.
  • A significant development has been:
    o Increased engagement and confidence in under 16 year olds, who often find joining college to be a daunting and difficult experience
    o A development of some, rather than having no, resilience amongst the most disengaged of learners
    o A significant decrease in the number of learners not returning to class after the break
    o Greater progress in the development of English skills in a shorter amount of time amongst some students
    o When the activities were conducted with smaller groups of students and in one-to-ones, they were very impactful.

Learning from this project

The embedding of a mindset for learning curriculum within GCSE English Language teaching, learning and assessment has proved to be a highly successful adaptation to the delivery of this subject for Study Programme and adult learners at The Sheffield College.

For many students there has been a noticeable improvement in their attitudes towards learning and themselves in relation to it, as well as a significant decrease in behavioural interventions.

Teachers’ practice has improved, particularly in relation to their use of language in the classroom, when challenging students’ negative attitudes towards learning and their ability to make progress in English. Significantly, practitioners have developed an even greater depth of understanding of the emotional challenges and barriers to learning faced by young people who have experienced repeated ‘failure’ in examinations.

Our aim was to research the impact of explicitly tackling the complex issue of learners’ attitudes towards learning, mainly their capacity for developing resilience in relation to our GCSE English Language programmes. We have found ways of doing this for the benefit of our learners; and in so doing, they have learned to build resilience and now enjoy a renewed confidence in their ability to learn.