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How can 'embedding' really benefit students?

'Shoehorning' in English or maths doesn't really help learners, writes Diana Tremayne – but lessons can be learned from an informal art project, she believes...

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'Shoehorning' in English or maths doesn't really help learners, writes Diana Tremayne – but lessons can be learned from an informal art project, she believes...

Embedding is one of those terms that tends to provoke groans from many teachers, not necessarily for the same reasons. There are teachers who see the embedding of English and maths (or British values, equality and diversity, and more) as a chore, while others feel frustrated because they believe it’s something that should happen fairly naturally within any subject area anyway. They hate the way it can be awkwardly shoehorned into the curriculum to tick boxes. 

Over the past couple of terms, I’ve been involved with an externally funded project that links English for speakers of other languages (Esol) students who are based at an FE college and a local art school. The teenage students visit the art school one afternoon a week and get to try out different art techniques. At the end of each term, they celebrate the completed work. Although one of the aims of the project is obviously to explore the visual arts, this is not to meet the requirements of any qualification but rather to provide different experiences for the students. This may help some of them to consider the arts as an area for future study but this is not the primary aim; in fact, promoting wellbeing, developing communication and building confidence were the key initial aims of the project.

What can we learn?

Not having the constraints of specific qualification demands has perhaps enabled us to approach the sessions in a slightly different way, although clearly there are requirements to satisfy the funding provider. So how has "embedding" actually worked in this scenario, and can it provide any pointers for more formal provision?

The first term’s sessions were very much a pilot, to get a feel for how the project could work and how it needed to develop. A wide range of art techniques were tried out, culminating in some beautiful silk paintings of creatures the students had created from their imaginations. 

In the second term (when most of the students were new to college and the project), the first few sessions devoted more time to exploring the language of art and thinking about how to describe objects and artworks. It was interesting that some of the students actually fed back that they wanted to focus less on the language and more on the art – particularly as initially some had worried that the art sessions wouldn’t help their English.

This was addressed as the students worked more on developing their own projects. As the weeks went on, the discussion and feedback on each other’s work seemed to become less awkward and more integral to the sessions rather than an "add-on". Less confident students were developing oral presentation skills effectively through working in a different environment and some of the more dominant students also appeared to be learning how to listen to other’s views and contributions more willingly. The students were also developing their artistic skills, something which most had never done before and something which they felt very positive about.

Things to consider when embedding

  • Don’t "shoehorn" in English, maths or other topics just for the sake of it or to tick boxes. Sometimes you will need to be explicit about what you are doing (for example, if you are addressing a particular aspect of language or discussing racism or homophobia) but that’s not the same as box-ticking.
  • Try to think beyond the basic requirements of a qualification: there may be opportunities to develop other skills and ideas that aren’t set out in the assessment criteria but will help the students to develop valuable skills or build on confidence.
  • Give strategies and routines time to work: discussions and ideas may not flow initially and you might need to rethink how you tackle a topic, but give new ideas and methods time to "bed in".
  • Think about where and how you might embed or develop the relevant skills: would it help to do this in a different environment or to bring in an outside speaker? If it’s an area outside your own comfort zone then this might really help you to develop your own understanding as well.
  • Listen to the students. They can give valuable feedback and may surprise you in terms of noticing ways in which English, maths, etc, have been developed (or could have been developed) which you hadn’t even considered.

Diana Tremayne is an ESOL teacher and is currently studying for a PhD. She tweets on @dianatremayne

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