Every class should have one
They should be helping teachers provide exploratory and creative activities, says Ruth Merttens
"How many of you have a teaching assistant for every English or maths lesson?" I frequently ask this question at the start of in-service training. It makes a lot of difference both to the advice I give and to the practices that teachers are able to adopt. Indeed, it has always seemed remarkable how little notice is taken in official primary strategy documentation of whether a teacher is supported or alone in the classroom.
It makes a massive difference.
The things teachers can do, the types of activity and the nature of the tasks are all very different if the teacher knows that there is another well-prepared, and ideally, well-trained, professional in the classroom.
Indeed, the fact that some classes have a regular teaching assistant to support maths or English lessons, and some have none, may be one of the great, unsung inequalities in primary education.
There is no such thing as a truly "independent" activity in the primary classroom. There is, however, a hierarchy of activities in terms of the amount of support they require. Understanding this fact forms the basis of good classroom management and, in particular, where and how to use any support available. We need to organise the activities for each group of children not only according to good educational principles (matching the task to ability, providing a variety of investigative, practical and repetitive material, and so on) but also according to the type of activity.
In addition, there are pragmatic and behavioural considerations, including some children's need for more supervision. This means the amount of teacher assistant time during maths lessons has a direct bearing on the teacher's choice of activity. This hierarchy of activities is most usefully organised according to three criteria: (i) educational content, (ii) type of activity, and (iii) amount of supervision required as children engage with it.
Of these, the selection of content is relatively unproblematic and is where most advice is offered to teachers. It clearly depends on the topic being taught, the age and level of the children and the stage reached in progressing through that topic (eg beginning work on decimals, or ending a series of lessons on narrative language).
The content of an activity has relatively little impact on whether it requires supervision by an adult or not. The second criterion, activity type, is less commonly discussed, although it is quite crucial, especially in relation to teacher assistant support. Activities divide into two basic types - product and process. Product activities have a concrete outcome, either written or visible, whereby the teacher can see how the children have got on and what they have achieved - for instance, children are sorting number cards into "prime numbers" and "those with factors", or writing a list of the idioms used in a particular text. Their work can be seen and checked.
Process activities are those in which the process of learning has no necessary visible or written outcome. Thus children measure round their hands using damp string, and compare lengths, or they re-tell and act out an oral story. Process activities have, by their very nature, to be supervised by a teacher or another adult, since the learning is evinced minute by minute in the discussion and actions taking place. By contrast, it is possible for product activities to be completed independently, since the teacher can see what the children have done.
The third criterion relates to the amount of supervision required. Some tasks need little supervision and intermittent attention will often be sufficient. For example, a workbook page is laid out for the children; it is normally relatively easy to use. But some activities cannot be achieved without sustained adult attention. Using a place-value grid to demonstrate how we compare large or decimal numbers requires an adult if it is to be an effective learning activity, as does debating the effectiveness of a particular argument.
In general, we accept that many investigative, practical or oral activities may require more teacher attention than workbook or textbook pages. But this also depends on whether the activity or page under discussion may be categorised as "process" or "product". Without a teaching assistant, the teacher can use process activities and more complex practical, oral or exploratory tasks only when she is herself working with a group of children.
Given that behavioural considerations also play a part in the decision as to which group to be with, this greatly restricts some children's learning.
It is no exaggeration to say that, in classes where there is never a teaching assistant, some children may only rarely do process activities or open-ended practical and exploratory tasks. Where a teaching assistant is available, they should be used to increase the number of these activities and the frequency with which they are presented.
This raises yet another issue. It is crucial that teacher assistants are provided with adequate and specific preparation for these process-orientated activities. And, in this context, it is quite unrealistic to assume - as some official publications appear to do - that the teacher and her assistant will have a spare half-hour to discuss each activity and the group of children who will be doing it, and to make notes.
It is also unreasonable to ask individual teachers to write notes for every activity they wish the teaching assistant to support. Such materials can and should be routinely provided with resources supplied to teachers by publishers or, indeed, by Government in unit plans. It is useless giving teachers a set of process-oriented activities without the notes for adults that make them usable. Any notes can then be adapted by teachers for use in each specific context.
It has been suggested that the obligation to provide each teacher with planning, preparation and assessment time may impel some heads to move existing teacher assistants from a supportive role in maths and English lessons to a supervisory role while the teacher is absent. This will not only result in a reduction of actual teaching time throughout the week, it will also impoverish classrooms left without the assistance needed to provide children with the variety of activities that makes learning English and maths exciting and creative. Every class should have a teaching assistant, not to cover for a teacher's absence, but to support the use of exploratory, practical and process-orientated activity in children's education.
Professor Ruth Merttens is co-author of Abacus Evolve and co-director of Hamilton maths and reading projects
* Sort activities in English and maths into "process" and "product", being aware of the implications in terms of adult support.
* Ensure that any adult assistance provided is used to support process activities that could not be performed without an adult presence.
* Do not waste teacher assistant time and effort by allowing them to support children in activities which those children could be doing independently.
* Do not allow behavioural considerations to be the only criteria by which the placing of the teacher assistant in the class is decided.
* Try to ensure that each group of children has equal access to each type of activity, especially to the exploratory, practical and oral tasks.
* Remember that teaching assistant time is probably the most valuable commodity over which you have control. Use it wisely.