UKEdMag: Reliance on Interventions by @mikeyambrose

Reliance on Interventions, by Michael Ambrose – This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of the UKEd Magazine. Click here to view.

Hands up who’s keen to spend the half term running revision sessions? And again if you spent Easter doing the same? Add on all the after-school ‘prep’, revision sessions, homework clubs, lunchtime ‘masterclasses’, study groups and ‘walking, talking mocks’ you’ve run and you could be forgiven for just wanting the half term break to yourself! We’ve got the balance all wrong. We’ve got education the wrong way round. But there is another way.

Teaching and education are constantly evolving, and I am pleased to say that we have long-since moved away from the traditional model (still present in many countries) of the teacher being the font of knowledge and students being the willing receptacles. However, largely through the pressures induced by inspections, league tables and performance-related pay, teaching and the role of the teacher have been corrupted in our society.

Instead of teachers being held in respect as the excellent facilitators of learning and development that so many are, we have developed a blame culture. Parents’ Evenings have become an ordeal where teachers are expected to explain what they are going to do to enhance the prospects of those under-performing students in their class. The question is just as often, “what are you going to do about it?” as it is, “what can my child do better?”

Where does this come from? After nearly 20 years in the profession, with a range of curriculum and pastoral roles behind me, I would argue that this culture is a direct result of the structures we have in place for measuring school progress. SATs are an experience almost universally decried by primary teachers and many students will finish their primary education with the feeling of having been put through a process of ‘the machine’ and have had the education ‘done to them’ rather than the inspiring and empowering experience we all know it should be.

KS2 results immediately inform target data which labels pupils in Year 7 with their expected attainment 5 years’ hence. For the brightest, (or more accurately, the best supported through early life) this means the yoke of pressure and expectation to perform is ever-present. For those who were less successful, the aspiration and inspiration are drained from them, as they are told repeatedly that mediocrity is the best they can hope for. Thus we have students programmed to work towards a pre-defined target based on their performance in Year 6 and teachers who correspondingly (whether consciously or sub-consciously) teach to the level of the target and set expectations of students at the average of what students with the same SATS results happened to achieve last year, rather than the potential learning abilities of each child.

As a result, leadership teams across the country, including my own, spend hours planning ever-increasing schemes of intervention, mostly focussed on the last-minute push to enhance the prospects of each Year 11 cohort before their all-important GCSEs. In my current school, these measures include catch-up classes, ‘Masterclasses’, ‘walking-talking mocks’, revision sessions, last-minute exam prep added to the timetable, literacy catch-up, homework club and fully-staffed ‘prep’.

This leads to pressurised and over-worked staff, but more worryingly for me, this reduces the expectation on students that they must take ownership of their private study and their own learning. Indeed, my experience has been that the more extra classes and activities offered by teaching staff, the lower the expectation of students that they should work independently at home. I’ve frequently heard students comment that they weren’t going to do any study of the holidays because there were revision sessions planned by staff.

The result is a lack of ownership and a lack of responsibility for outcomes. Teachers who succeed in this climate have their egos massaged and those who don’t are damned by appraisal. But that ‘other way’ I mentioned earlier is just around the corner – if we can be brave enough to ditch those interventions and holiday revision sessions!

Rather than continually build on the ever-increasing dependence on ‘interventions’ to guard against any possible slip in results, I believe that we, as teachers, should be taking proactive steps to develop self-regulating learners. Boekaerts (1999) defines self-regulation as the ability to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes transferable from one learning context to another and from learning situations in which this information has been acquired to a leisure and work context. As a novice gardener, I didn’t know where to start when I wanted to propagate bamboo cuttings for my garden, but I knew I had the learning skills to grasp it given the sufficient time and motivation. Self-regulators are easily identified in the classroom as being self-starters, confident, strategic and resourceful, and self-reactive to task performance outcomes (Cubukcu, 2009).

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To develop these self-regulating students, we must train our staff to discuss metacognition with students and empower students to make decisions about their own learning. Knowing that they would yield valuable advice, I sought counsel from Google and the local garden centre, enabling me to purchase rooting powder and the best compost to ensure my baby bamboo would thrive. Self-regulators need first to be capable of delaying gratifying behaviours, such as socialising rather than studying, in favour of greater reinforcers, such as developing new skills, knowledge and improved academic results, in the long term. Indeed, by investing time and effort to grow my own bamboo, I have cultivated a healthier bank balance as well as a flourishing garden and green fingers.

It is also essential that students believe that the development of proficiencies, such as the ability to accurately answer exam questions, is a strategically controllable process and that outcomes are within their sole control. This means the teacher must hand students the roadmap to success right from the start of a course and trust students to move through that map at their own pace.

Practical strategies would include providing a menu of different tasks for students to choose from, allowing learners to choose the strategies they feel are best suited to their needs. It is absolutely key that the assessment goals are clear, the strategies for learning explicit, the support from the teacher skilled and that the learner understands the point of the exercise, and is therefore motivated.

As Seifodin Rajabi notes in his paper, Towards self-regulated learning in the school curriculum, once equipped with self-regulatory skills, even students who have experienced failure for a long time would be encouraged to accept at least parts of the responsibility for their learning and progression. I’ll let you into a secret: not every plant that I’ve tended has made it out of the cold frame but I did not let previous gardening failures stand in the way of bamboo success. And it’s the same in the classroom where my students have rejected their target grades as lacking challenge, achieving school-leading results without a single intervention session. My latest cohort had nearly 60% with 4 levels of progress.

Cultivate self-regulating students you sow the seed for life-long learning, saving time and energy, and rendering the hothouse of interventions obsolete.

My 10-point manifesto for removing the reliance on interventions:

  1. Motivate students. Make sure they see the point of their learning: for interest, for successful adult life, and for gaining qualifications.
  2. Give students the tools they need to recognise their own learning needs and to learn more independently.
  3. Ensure students are clear about how they will be assessed and how they can be successful in that assessment.
  4. Think beyond target grades. Ensure all students know they are capable of the highest grades and studying things harder than their current level (such as A-Level work for GCSE candidates).
  5. Allow students opportunities to identify their own learning needs and to plan how those needs will be addressed.
  6. Provide a menu of tasks which students can choose from or adapt in order to complete the required learning.
  7. During learning, celebrate interesting diversions which encourage that elusive ‘thirst for knowledge’.
  8. Be on hand to analyse learners’ needs, analyse faults or flaws in their work and refocus their efforts appropriately.
  9. Maintain high expectations of motivation and work produced. Encourage students to identify what’s good about their own and others’ work and to learn from each other.
  10. Ensure assessment is clear and transparent and, once completed, illustrate the link between high effort and engagement and success.

Michael Ambrose @mikeyambrose is a currently a secondary assistant headteacher with nearly 20 years’ teaching experience in a wide range of schools. He’s passionate about improving learning and believes all students can achieve more than they realise!

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