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Rousing the able but unwilling

A special programme of stimulating class activities is helping to motivate gifted underachievers to realise their potential. Karen Shead reports on a project in Fife

One of the best ways to encourage demotivated pupils to take an interest in a subject is to make it come alive, but that is often easier said than done.

A project that aims to improve performance in S2 pupils whose grades do not reflect their ability is set to start up again at Inverkeithing High, in Fife, next month after its success last year.

Biology teacher Lesley Gordon, who acted as able pupil co-ordinator last year, had been looking for some time into setting up a scheme to help demotivated pupils. "In January 2002 we were told about a project at Currie High in Edinburgh and we based our project on the idea," she says.

A list of the top 50 pupils in Edinburgh Reading Tests was sent to all departments to pick out any of the able pupils who were failing to achieve satisfactory grades. Eleven pupils were selected three or more times by separate departments for a variety of reasons, including underachievement, lack of effort and poor behaviour. These pupils formed group A.

"They were withdrawn from one class a week and sessions of motivating activities were held in the boardroom, which has a pleasant atmosphere and a certain kudos," explains Mrs Gordon.

A second group of 11 pupils, group B, volunteered to attend a Thinkers Group one lunchtime a week. Five of these pupils appeared in the top 50 ERT scores.

A third group of 11 pupils was chosen at random from the top 50 ERT list to act as a control group. They did not experience the programme at all.

"A programme of motivating activities was designed by 10 teachers from different subject areas," Mrs Gordon says. "We acted as a committee and would get together once every six weeks to discuss how it was going. The programme ran for 20 weeks, each teacher had two sessions and I would take their class while they were working on the programme."

The activities were all outside the usual curriculum and involved a degree of thinking, either lateral or logical, and a question session from the pupils to each other was held at the end of each activity. In music, students created a new piece and performed it to classmates. In maths, they worked with graphic calculators, using equations to predict where a graph would appear on the screen. In art, they were asked to come up with illustrations for poems, William Blake's The Tiger, for example. In science, they had to create packaging for eggs so they wouldn't break if dropped from a height.

"It was all about making them think in a different way to what they are used to," explains Mrs Gordon. "It is what we call higher order thinking skills. They have to use information, think about how to do things. They are not knowledge-based exercises."

The pupils were assessed by comparing their marks in English, language, maths and science prior to and after the programme.

Questionnaires were issued to heads of department, parents and pupils, all of whom thought the project was beneficial. "Language teachers felt it was positive as pupils showed more interest in class and a lot of science teachers felt that pupils' attitude was better, although marks didn't improve," says Mrs Gordon.

"The group that achieved most was the volunteers, which is probably to be expected as they would have the greatest motivation."

The control group showed the lowest grade improvement and the greatest deterioration, which indicated that the intervention was, to some extent, responsible for the improved performance in the other groups.

"It may have been effective with a small number of pupils and there were a few who benefited hugely," says Mrs Gordon. "We felt it was positive enough to run the programme again."

The programme is set to recommence in mid-February and run until the summer term. English teacher Stuart Graham has taken over as able pupil co-ordinator and a few changes have been made.

"This year we are using the Middle Years Information System scores, instead of the ERT," he says.

MidYIS tests are widely used in the UK to measure developed ability based on vocabulary and non-verbal skills rather than reading skills. As far as possible, they are not curriculum based.

"Departments will be given the top 50 marks and asked to highlight able but demotivated pupils and also the able and very motivated. There will be three groups taking part instead of two.

"The classes will be once a week for 10 weeks and pupils will follow a programme based on a theme that all the subjects will relate to, for example, the world around us. The aim is to make it more cross-curricular.

"There will be four weeks at the end to give them time to prepare a presentation, which gives them a focus. They may set up a website, or give a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, which will also make them feel as if they have done something with their experience."

The able but demotivated pupils will have mentors. These will be trained members of staff who will meet with them on a regular basis throughout the year.

"It does require a lot of time and effort and is going to take a huge amount of commitment from teachers," says Mr Graham, "but it's an exciting project to be involved in.

"Essentially these students are gifted and they have the right to have this kind of provision. It's always concentrated on the bottom end, but these students need encouragement as well."

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