Can the improvement of systems and practice lead to improved outcomes for learners?

Petroc

This project investigated learner response to a restructured English curriculum, with metacognition at its core. Learners swapped one hour of English teaching a week for an instructor-led VESPA session, focusing on the development of independent skills for learning and knowledge acquisition.

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

Summary

In the summer term 18/19, our teaching team embraced the concept of VESPA (Oakes and Griffin, 2019). As a college, we acknowledged that improving outcomes did not simply lie in addressing gaps in knowledge but also through addressing a lack of motivation, organisation and identifying appropriate learning strategies.

In the short time available we worked with two English cohorts on VESPA (vision, effort, systems, practice and attitude) by embracing Oakes and Griffin’s suggested activities. The two groups who experienced this different focus in teaching did remarkably well and we saw a significant improvement in progress.

Our findings have raised as many questions as answers, highlighting the need for contextualised approaches to ‘off the shelf strategies’. Of particular significance are improvements in learners’ attendance and confidence. Moving forwards, we hope that our VESPA approaches will also assist learners who experience anxiety and fear when working independently in exams.

Rationale

In 18/19 we witnessed the widening of the attainment gap for our more vulnerable learners. What has become evident to myself and colleagues is the problem does not rest solely in ability. Expectations and learned behaviours are thwarting achievement and are creating a cycle of failure. Many students when asked to articulate their feelings on resitting English, expressed feelings such as,

“I just can’t pass”

“my teacher told me last year that I would pass.”

Previously, we had assumed that learners ‘can’t be bothered’ when in fact they didn’t have the ‘practice’ skills for independent study. Many cannot organise or record notes effectively – the process of learning, for some, like reading a book without understanding the words. Not understanding how to learn left learners frustrated and disengaged.

We tolerated ‘learned behaviours’ and we didn’t challenge fixed mindsets. We assumed that mindsets couldn’t change. Our views on this were challenged however, when we noticed learners who were committed and focused in their year one, became less so in year two.

We realised that we needed to make changes to support out learners. Not every learner implicitly understands how to learn; lack of access to learning strategies can lead to lack of confidence in ability as learners simply don’t know what to do with new information.

The Working Memory Model (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974) cites the need for students to apply their learning through independent practice. Without reinforcement, information cannot become knowledge or skill (Oakes and Griffin, 2019).

We offer 3-hour blocks of English teaching but realised that students require coaching as well as teaching. To sustain a growth mindset within a cohort takes time, practice and an individual approach. Learners need coaching time in order to break down barriers and misconceptions. Staff also need coaching in leading independent thinking.

During this project, we explored the impact of replacing one English curriculum hour per 3-hour session with an hour of VESPA work, known in our college as ‘The Power Hour’.

Approach

In order to implement VESPA strategies for independent learning, we revised our scheme of work from 3 hours of English delivery to 2 hours.

The third hour was spent with an instructor, who facilitated independent learning activities including: note taking, revision strategies and organisers.

Each term was designed with a different focus, helping build skills for learning. Term 1 focused on independent learning skills, term 2 on vision and progress and term 3 on systems and practice.

Each week, a range of strategies and activities were explored to support learners with their English learning, as shown in Figure 5b-1.

The sessions centred on developing metacognition were separate to teaching sessions and had two intended outcomes; for learners to become aware of how they create knowledge and for learners to feel supported to regulate their behaviours in the process. As a college with a high proportion of learners with SEND, this was an especially important consideration.

Students and parents were informed of our new approach to teaching and learning. However, the cohort was not made aware that we were undertaking action research. We made this decision because we identified trust as a barrier to learning; could the uncertainty of an action research project jeopardise trust for students who have already lost confidence in education post GCSE failure?

In order to monitor the impact of the new ‘Power Hour’, students undertook discussion-based assessments at the beginning, mid and end points of the project, using Oakes and Griffin’s (2019) ‘vision questions’. Students have also completed a survey and have answered questions based on VESPA with particular focus on Systems and Practice

As the project has continued, we have introduced additional questions for the case study interviews. These also include questions informed by Rosenshein’s Principles in Action (Sherrington, 2019).

In January (post mock exam), ten-minute interviews were conducted with students so they could share their perspectives on the impact of our VESPA activities. This helped us understand whether learners were effectively applying VESPA strategies during their English learning. The interviews also helped us understand the impact of these strategies in relation to exam preparation and performance.

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

In addition to our separate instructor hour, lecturers are also embedding VESPA activities within teaching sessions. For example, the prioritisation grid is used to judge confidence in learners and often follows a ‘hinge point’ question (Wiliam, 2011) when checking for learning.

Asking colleagues to alter and adapt existing teaching and learning practices was not without challenge – an important consideration for anyone trying to effect cultural change within their setting. An unexpected challenge was a lack of motivation from a small number of staff to make changes to their practice. In these instances, staff did not necessarily need to improve content knowledge but, in the spirit of Wiliam’s ‘love the one you’re with strategy,’ we soon realised that for motivational work with learners to occur, motivational work with staff was also required.

Many teachers in the department were concerned that we were substituting content with wellbeing strategies. However, as a project team, we agree with Fisher (2013) that, ‘education can, in other words, not only impart knowledge but also teach powerful capabilities for evaluating and applying such knowledge.’ Colleagues who are invested see the benefits but agree with our project’s finding that a stand-alone instructor lesson does not always lead to independent practice transferring to taught sessions. This was an important moment in our research, illustrated in the reflection below:

Our group 1 students who practised the motivation diamond in the facilitated session will still question the point of the length of the session in the taught session. As the term has progressed, we have advised the teaching team to refrain from using the term ‘VESPA lesson.’ The student interviews in January prove that this worked to some degree as many students when questioned about the effectiveness of the session responded with, ‘we don’t have VESPA just English.’ However, we have continued to see a disconnect where learned, positive behaviours are apparent in the instructor session and not the core English session. Is this due to a different level of trust being built between instructor and student or is it the instructor’s greater capacity to embed systems and practice? Again, we did not anticipate the impact of the personality or the capability of the Instructor when predicting outcomes.
(Project team reflection)

Similarly, with learning, teachers need to fully understand the Working Memory Model. During assessment in week 6 and week 10, learners’ results did not demonstrate above expected progress scores – research suggests that this is not a bad outcome. According to Bjork (2007), ‘the more they struggle and the worse they fail, the better the long-term memory’. Shifting perceptions and feelings around failure are important, especially for GCSE resit learners.

We also assessed attitudes to learning, with interesting findings. Learners responded favourably to questions about their English lessons in week 6, and this improved again in week 10. Typical questions on the survey included:

How do you feel when you are in English lessons?

How do you feel when you have a challenging English question?

The surveys conducted in instructor sessions demonstrated more favourable responses than those conducted in taught sessions. This could be due to several influences. The activities in the instructor session are created with the intention of raising self-esteem and motivation, is this quickly lost in the traditional classroom setting?

As previously stated, we haven’t seen significant improvement in terms of attainment during formal assessment. This leads us to believe that improving systems and practice is not enough. We also need to acknowledge other factors when examining progress.

According to Melby-Lervag and Hulme (2013) the following are high and low impact factors:
• Low impact factors – Ability groupings & buildings
• High impact factors – Classroom practice and poverty

Our level 1 cohort has a significantly high percentage of disadvantaged learners (27%), can improving systems and practice help bridge gaps in learning or just create new knowledge? If it is the latter, how do we make this better? We have previously streamed learners with a prior attainment of grade 3 and in 2018, this had little impact as a significant number of learners with grade 3 prior attainment were on their third resit. The data suggested that exam fatigue and a break in trust (in systems and teachers) had a greater influence on outcome than sitting with peers who have a similar starting point.

To improve gaps in learning, we decided to introduce a Knowledge Organiser in week 15. We can give learners a framework such as timetables and learning/organisational strategies but we also need to give them resources that complement these strategies. We can’t just assume they can apply new strategies to traditional teaching and resources. Again, we will check for progress in week 24.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The project has conveniently coincided with the new EIF that clearly supports student wellbeing and preparation for work and further study.

We have shared our VESPA schemes of work with colleagues in all curriculum areas. The most powerful collaborations at Petroc have been between the tutor support team and instructors. At the start of the project, we anticipated that we would uncover gaps in learning and more effectively address the obstacles that thwart independent learning such as students’ inability to identify how they learn best.

We have uncovered more significant influences that affect student learning. One of the questions asked in the January interviews with students was, ‘How do you feel about English lessons?’ The answers ranged from, ‘I hate it,’ to ‘I feel pressured,’ and ‘It’s better than school.’

We took time to investigate the more negative findings and found that a significant number of students required learning support that was not in place in school. Years of struggle and persistent feelings of failure leads to resistance now. Further Education colleges are also at a disadvantage to sixth form colleges who have smoother transitions for post-16 learners and experience fewer barriers to sharing information. We have been able to support and identify even more learners through the project.

Many students had previously resisted support as they viewed it as embarrassing and a confirmation of failure. At Petroc, we have ‘support’ in classroom settings but have removed the label. We now simply “team teach” in order to bring support into the classroom.

Moving forward, it is evident that the need for VESPA and coaching is more prolific in Level 1 learning. This by far has been the cohort that has evidenced improvements in attitudes and attendance through the project. In 2021, we will be offering two hours of coaching and study skills as part of the three hour delivery.

We feel strongly that the project has demonstrated that learners have to be ready to learn before any new knowledge can be created. To be ready to learn, they need more than a pen, they need to feel safe, accepted, understood and confident in the teachers around them.

We also need teachers who have the capability to create a tolerant, energised and trusting space. We have introduced a ‘praise board’ at Petroc based on the findings of Rob Plevin (2019). Staff record positive actions of learners that are discussed in the staffroom and reinforced by all teachers in the classrooms. We are fortunate to have a team of staff who demonstrate emotional intelligence in abundance.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

We feel strongly that we (students and teachers) have benefited greatly from this project. We have seen improving trends in data, particularly in attendance. Petroc College’s average attendance currently is between 75-80% in English and maths but in the focus groups this has improved to 85% and 93%, 15% above current college averages.

At times, it does feel that the same negativity amongst learners exists but in actual fact when a learner states, ‘I’ve had enough now’ I also interpret this as a sign of trust and confidence in me as a teacher to think on my feet and address their needs.

From the learner interviews we also see progress in the ability of learners to self-identify areas that are challenging. One student who has autism commented:

‘My teacher knows when I’m struggling with difficult words and will make things more simple when I feel overwhelmed.’

The learner also commented that he is no longer, ‘afraid of English.’ This learner also described teachers at a previous setting as ‘aggressive.’ On further questioning, it became evident that this was more likely frustration, as this very able learner has previously described, ‘shutting down’ when things became challenging.

We have also seen some improvements in effort. A simple method in achieving this outcome is consistency and clarity in expectation. Surprisingly, two learners involved in the study have withdrawn from their vocational course but have requested to stay on for maths and English only. When questioned, one responded with, “I know what I need to do for English.” In addition to this, the student also has clear vision. He wishes to achieve an apprenticeship and will require maths & English.

Learning from this project

The project has been an incredibly rewarding experience and for the project team – it has changed the way we look at the delivery of both English and maths. Previously, we had assumed that supporting learners meant awarding more hours to core teaching, the findings from this project suggest there is merit in other approaches.

We now understand that learning will only be effective when the student is open to learning, feels safe and secure in the learning environment, can be empowered through self-regulation and truly sees the importance of learning. This project has given us the strategies to promote and create the learning situations above.

We also previously believed that mastery (the cementing of knowledge) was achieved through repetition of the same tasks. This belief has been tested during the project as we have seen learners progress through trying new ways of learning and remembering.

The activities listed in the VESPA programme have allowed learners to identify strategies that best support them to learn. This we truly believe will help narrow the attainment gap for both our disadvantaged and Level 1 learners in our summer examinations.

The project has also shown us that we can’t offer the same delivery pattern to Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 learners and expect the same progress. We believe that some cohorts will benefit from a greater degree of support with systems and practice than others. We see this project as our first action research cycle, next we will focus on how to achieve accelerated progress for Level 1 learners, as well as developing a research programme specifically for maths, exploring how to address low levels of vision and self-esteem.