How to instil the WOWW factor

6th November 2009 at 00:00
An American programme has helped disaffected and disengaged boys reassess their behaviour

Many teachers would baulk at receiving feedback on a lesson in front of pupils, but in Moray it's a key element of a programme credited with improving behaviour.

A teacher with 20 years' experience, Liz Rennie admits to feeling demotivated when none of her tried and tested strategies appeared to be working with an all-male composite P3-4 class. The 15 boys were disaffected and disengaged. They had been grouped together so they could be supported to improve and to prevent disruption to other pupils. But she was tearing her hair out trying to get through normal, day-to-day teaching.

"They had poor self-esteem and social skills. No respect for themselves, for others or for me as the class teacher," says Ms Rennie, now the head at Portgordon Primary, but at the time its principal teacher.

Taking part in the Working On What Works - or WOWW - programme challenged her perception of pupils and their perception of her. It was "a powerful experience" which boosted her self-confidence and made the pupils aware of their behaviour and its impact.

The programme, which was developed in America, begins with a meeting between teacher and, in Moray's case, inclusion support service staff or educational psychologists, during which the problems are discussed.

Ten one hour-long sessions follow, broken up into 30-40 minutes of classroom observation and then 20 minutes of feedback, "goaling" and "scaling". During the opening sessions, every child receives comments on the positive aspects of his or her behaviour, with teachers told their strengths in front of pupils. In the sessions that follow, the class set themselves goals and on a scale of one to 10 estimate where they are now in terms of, for instance, good listening or respectful relationships, and where they would like to be.

"It was letting them know how things should be done and praising them for it," explains Ms Rennie.

Their reaction was incredibly positive, she says. Afterwards, they grinned widely and had a new pride in themselves.

"Nothing had prepared me for the emotional side of it," she continues. "These boys had me tearing my hair out but I also had tears in my eyes watching them."

Receiving feedback in front of the class did not phase Ms Rennie. She was at the end of her tether, she admits, and willing to try anything.

"The fact someone was taking time to comment on me made them realise I was quite an important person. It was as though - up until then - they hadn't realised I existed."

Pupils can be guilty of taking their teacher for granted, says Sandra Bruce, Moray's outreach co-ordinator, who delivers WOWW. The positive feedback highlights all that the teacher does - how much preparation she does and how quickly she responds when a child puts his hand up, for instance.

Ms Bruce says: "There was a P3 class where we came in first thing in the morning. The teacher was really well organised and ready for action, so we started to explore with the children in our feedback: `how did that happen?' There was this dawning realisation that a fair bit of work must have gone on before class arrived. You see their faces change as they think about what their teacher is doing."

To date, WOWW has been used in seven Moray classrooms over two years.

Research carried out into its success shows that after the intervention, teachers noted a marked improvement in the goals their classes had been working on, such as listening, teamwork and respect. Before WOWW, they rated their classes as low as 210 but, following the intervention, they scored at least 610.

Commenting on the impact WOWW had on them, teachers said it "helped me understand"; "made me target my praise"; "made the class aware of their individual behaviour and responsibilities to the whole class"; "helped me move out from a fairly negative mindset about my class"; and "the positive feedback helped me be more confident, which then makes me assertive in class".

One teacher had been embarrassed during the feedback, but generally teachers said it had made them feel "chuffed" and "proud".

Few criticisms of the programme came through, although one teacher felt frustrated that only positive behaviour was flagged up. She felt negative behaviour could have been discussed and its impact shown. Another said behaviour improved during observations but "did not always carry on to other lesson times".

WOWW is not a miracle cure, says Ms Rennie, but it is a step in the right direction. At Portgordon Primary, the programme was used to help a newly- qualified teacher struggling with some pupils' behaviour. Now, as the head, she advocates a solution-orientated approach. "We are trying to move away from conflict and instead, looking to find a way forward. That's all come from WOWW," she says.

Now Moray has ambitions to build WOWW into school systems and to take the intervention into secondaries.

  • WOWW: Coaching Teachers to See the Solutions in Their Classrooms' in Solution Focused Brief Therapy in Schools by Cynthia Franklin et al (OUP)
    • Intervention USA

      The Americans behind the Working On What Works programme, Insoo Kim Berg and Lee Shilts, define it as "a process of collaboration between teachers and pupils to set goals, solicit ideas for solutions and look for small successes to build on".

      It was first used in a middle school in Florida in "special education classrooms", but when it was found to have improved pupil attendance, it was introduced across the school. Then, in Chicago, it was trialled in three public schools. Following the intervention, teachers perceived the class to be better behaved; saw themselves as better managers; and students saw themselves as better behaved and more respectful.

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