Mark Hitchen doesn't just make his students work; he makes his walls work, too. His classroom at Sandy Lane Primary School in Bradford, England, where he teaches children aged 6 and 7, has multiple display boards and they are all used to help his students meet learning objectives.
"They're central to my lessons and have helped both my class and my teaching improve," Hitchen says. "My teaching has gone from being rated 'good' by inspectors to being rated 'outstanding' since using them, and my students achieved the best results the school has ever had at their level. The use of the walls has been key to these achievements."
Hitchen uses what are termed "working walls": a system of wall displays that record, visualise and assist learning.
"Traditionally, displays were all about celebrating children's work. The working walls still do that but it is about making those walls a learning and teaching resource as well," says Sam Adams, owner of education consultancy Education Works and a leading trainer in the use of working walls in primary schools (for children aged 4-11) in the UK.
In simple terms, a working wall is used to indicate on a display board the starting point and learning outcome for the lesson unit being taught. You then record the journey between the two points on the board.
"The wall is there to showcase to everyone what is being learned, why it is being learned, what will be achieved and to track the progress through those aims, making the student an active part of the process," Adams says. "I have worked with many teachers who have been using them and the feedback is that they have a massive impact on student motivation and make a genuine contribution to progress."
The concept has been around for at least a decade but Adams says teachers are now employing it more as they seek out additional tools to create independent learners and to encourage children to take an active part in the planning process. Despite the increase, though, some argue that users both old and new are still not utilising the model as well as they could, primarily because they do not really understand it.
"I think that some teachers do not engage enough with working walls because they do not fully understand what (one) is and the substantial impact it can have," Hitchen says.
The problem is that, aside from the basic stipulation of a display board and start and finish points for lesson units, how a working wall is used is largely up to the individual.
"A working wall is a really flexible model: you have the basic premise but it is down to the teacher to make it work in the way they feel is most effective for their class," Adams says.
This flexibility leaves room for error. Fortunately, some general guidelines have emerged to ensure that the model is effective.
"The (working walls) should be related to the learning that is taking place and the learning culture in the classroom, and there should be genuine involvement of the active learners in developing collaborative materials and outcomes," says Bill Boyle, professor of educational assessment at the University of Manchester in the UK.
Alan Peat, an independent education consultant, agrees that to be effective the wall has to be a constantly evolving and relevant resource. "I recommend context-driven working walls, which are frequently changed and supportive of the task in hand. This means that they will not look beautiful - they should be a functional tool."
Adams says that to increase understanding of the model, it can be useful to look at where working walls are being used most effectively. Although there are no set rules to copy, good examples can be a useful guide to what is possible.
He cites an example where a school put daily objectives on the wall and had an illustrated pathway between them on which stood a series of characters. The students moved these characters between the objectives as they were achieved.
Another school dedicated a top corner of the wall to what the children already knew. At the start of each day, the previous board was reviewed, the lessons learned were put in that top corner and a new path of objectives was created.
Elsewhere, teachers have taken photographs of their walls so that when topics are revisited the children can view on an interactive whiteboard what they learned before. Adams says another example that worked well was when a teacher left a space on the wall for students to choose the content, such as hard-to-remember terminology, information on conversions for mathematics or ideas they particularly connected with.
Hitchen puts his own success with the working walls down to a number of features. For example, he has a reference section for key vocabulary or, on his maths board, for signs, so the children can look for a solution to a question themselves before asking a teacher. He says the children have become much more independent since using it. He has also invented a character called Speedy Spider for his mathematics wall. The children have to help Speedy Spider solve problems and get him to the solution, which has really boosted engagement.
An important aspect of Hitchen's walls is rewarding good work. He photocopies examples of where a child has met a learning objective well and puts those next to the objective on the wall. He stresses, though, that the rewards are not just for the brightest students.
"If a child says something really astute, shows a lot of initiative or effort, or shows they understand something fully, then that can go on the board, too. I will write it in a little speech bubble with their picture attached and put it up," he explains.
Hitchen has multiple working walls in his classroom, one for each subject area, including for "philosophy for children" lessons. Adams says this is typical, noting that working walls' wider application is an interesting development - they used to be a tool only for literacy and maths, but the model is increasingly being employed in other subjects such as science.
Adams adds that teachers are starting to use working walls with four- and five-year-olds, too. "They have to be slightly different. I have seen some great examples where a character from a fairy tale or children's (television) programme is put on a board and changes subtly each day, and the children have to spot the change and write a sentence explaining it on the whiteboard next to it."
The working walls remit is expanding, then. Done well, they can be an essential classroom tool but done badly they can be an ineffective waste of time. The more examples of good practice there are out there, the more likely it is that teachers' walls will be in the former, not the latter, category.
Working walls are a way of using display boards in primary school (ages 5-11) classrooms as a teaching resource.
The basic premise is that the start and end points of a lesson unit are put on a display board and the journey between the two is charted by the students and the teacher.
Because of the loose prescription as to how the walls are used, there are many examples of bad practice.
Examples of best practice, such as constant student engagement and input, the use of characters and the reward and motivation of displaying good work, can provide general guidelines for success.
The model is now expanding into new areas. For example, it is being used with four- and five-year-olds.
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