Much can be achieved with a bit of TLC

16th October 2009 at 01:00
Formative assessment will drive the success of A Curriculum for Excellence

Teacher Learning Communities have been likened to support groups such as WeightWatchers or Alcoholics Anonymous. They help people to change their ways.

The communities, created by Dylan Wiliam of the Institute of Education in London, consist of eight to 10 classroom teachers in the same school who have committed themselves to embedding formative assessment techniques in their teaching. At regular meetings, they report on their own progress; describe how other TLC members are doing, based on short observations of each others' classes; offer suggestions for improvement; and outline what further technique or step they will take before the next meeting.

Professor Wiliam contends that teachers need to engage with colleagues in a TLC for at least two years in order to change habits and see the improvements in pupils' learning.

In Scotland, the Tapestry Partnership has set up the "Sustainable Assessment for Learning with Teacher Learning Communities" programme, a two-year course consisting of a masterclass with Professor Wiliam for TLC leaders, support sessions with Tapestry tutors, plus materials and ongoing liaison. Last year, four Scottish local authorities joined; this year, five have signed up.

At Bishopbriggs Academy in East Dunbartonshire, the STLC programme, as it is known, has won some fervent converts - none more so than depute head Peter Flood, who has just moved to another authority. "I believe this is the most significant development I have been involved in in education," he says. "I thought I was good at assessment for learning - I've been 25 years in teaching - but I realised I didn't do it consistently. We delude ourselves."

He believes Teacher Learning Communities are so successful because the format is sustainable, the groups work independently of the school's management team, and they are propelled by a sense of mutual commitment.

As a member of the senior management team, he would not normally have been part of a TLC, but he had a five-hour teaching commitment every week at Bishopbriggs and was on the authority's STLC steering group, so wanted to make sure he had first-hand experience.

The original set-up at the school has eight members - different departments, ages and experiences. It is led by Denise Black (art and photography), who has been teaching for only three years. But the group has spawned many other groups, infecting them, almost virus-like, with their enthusiasm; and some now are made up entirely of teachers from the same department. Of the school's 102 teachers, only 15 have not volunteered to join a TLC.

Julie McSherry (maths and guidance) explains: "Most of us will try out a particular technique and there are always various degrees of success, but these could be subject-specific. If it doesn't work particularly well, you can keep it at the back of your head and move on to try a new technique, but you can always go back and retry that technique after a meeting.

"The good thing about sitting down together is you can say, `That didn't work for me', and there are always six or seven other people to say, `How about trying it this way?' Most of us are running with two or three new techniques every month."

Her biggest fear was peer observation, but she now looks forward to visits from Pauline Mannas (business studies).

One unintended consequence of the programme is that staff have become much more open to sharing practice, says Mr Flood.

Gillian Hazelton, an English teacher of 30 years' experience, describes how a probationer observing her class picked up a flaw in the way she was using ABCD cards (each card matches a statement she has written on the blackboard; pupils show the card they think best describes the right proposition, and the class then discusses). She was getting the children to put the cards upright when they answered, allowing pupils to look around to see what other people's answers were. She immediately changed the technique.

PE teacher Ian Dunachie uses the four corners of the gym. For one Standard grade class, he placed a trampoline in each corner and asked pupils to move to the one where the correct technique was being demonstrated, and persuade others of the merit of their choice.

Miss McSherry likes a technique called "exit cards". Towards the end of a maths lesson, she gives the class a question on an exit card which they have to answer and hand in as they leave the room. She looks at the cards overnight, and at the next lesson can either move on to another topic, if it is clear everyone has grasped the lesson, or revisit it if some have not.

"It's a good one for checking for understanding - I'm not sure if previously I did that particularly well. I did question at the end of the lesson, but I'm not sure if I could have told you if everyone had got it," she says.

Members of Bishopbriggs's original TLC are united in their praise for the use of random questioning (or "no hands up" as it is sometimes called).

Pauline Mannas uses a computer-generated program (downloaded from classtools.net) which produces a different pupil's name randomly, like a fruit-machine, while Dave Hepburn (history and modern studies) puts the names on poker chips which he draws from a bag. Some use lollipop sticks.

Gillian Hazelton, who has been teaching English for 30 years, uses name cards instead of hands up. "You ask your question first, give the whole class time to think about it and then turn the card over. For some reason, the child doesn't go, `I don't know' - they always answer, although they will maybe say they're not sure. The children who know the answer don't feel geeky about answering," she says.

Peter Flood believes randomised questioning has "transformed" the level of participation in classes. "The shy, retiring children who lack confidence are fully part of the lesson within four to five lessons. There was one little girl who had clearly decided she would get through school by keeping her mouth shut but is now fully involved," he says.

Mr Hepburn says the TLC programme has forced him to ask more thoughtful questions. His work on peer support and an extension called "expert groups", which he sets up as a revision tool, have produced better-quality responses, better engagement and better test scores. It has also, he says, made teaching much more enjoyable.

What the pupils say

  • Two stars and a wish (peer and self-assessment)
    • Hayley Robson, P5: "It gives you a chance to see your progress and someone else's."

      Charlie Geddes, P6: "Someone told me to use a dictionary and use paragraphs."

      Ethan Weir, P5: "You learn from your mistakes in the wish bit and something you need to improve on and it gives you instant feedback."

      • Lollipop sticks and no hands up:
        • Nathan King, P5: "Last year, Miss Sommerville made lollipop sticks with our names on. You weren't allowed to put your hand up. You didn't ken if it would be you, so you had to have an answer."

          Ellie Stewart, P5: "And she gives you thinking time for an answer. Lots of people are speaking more because it's random. There's one girl and outside school she'll talk all the time, but in the classroom she was really quiet. She's got more answers in her system and they just pop out of her mouth now."

          What teachers say

          It's 3.25pm on the last Thursday before the October break. There are five members of Sanquhar Primary's Teacher Learning Community in attendance and Fiona Sommerville leads the 75-minute meeting.

          Selecting a lollipop stick bearing a fellow member's name, she asks Alison Duncan, a probationer teaching P2, to go first with the five-minute "moan" that starts every monthly meeting. In turn, teachers let off steam about everything from workload to the difficulty of moving from teaching P3 to P1.

          They move on to "feedback" - how each has been getting on with the techniques they attempted, and what this has allowed them to do less of. (A key principle behind Dylan Wiliam's programme is that, by doing more formative assessment in class, teachers should be freed from time- consuming and ineffective marking.)

          Miss Sommerville, who teaches P3-4, reports limited success. She has used stampers, based on traffic lights, to focus her pupils on specific writing targets, such as capital letters and full stops, reading through their work and using joining words - but her class is still new to the ideas of formative assessment; even when using "two stars and a wish" for peer assessment, some of their comments on their partner's work have not been correct.

          Mrs Duncan is struggling to train her pupils not to put their hands up - although she uses named lollipop sticks some of the time, she says it's time-consuming to set up if some pupils are off.

          It's not, points out Ali White (P7 teacher). If you pull out a blank, they get to ask you a question, or you have to answer your own question.

          Miss White reports that, instead of giving marks out of a total, she is trying to use a plus, minus or equals sign to show pupils how they are progressing. The only problem is that pupils treat these symbols as "points" and do not go over their work to see why it's better, the same, or not as good as a previous piece.

          Jean Wilson (P2-3 composite) has laminated "helping hands" self-assessment cards to help her pupils understand their targets; her next step will be peer assessment.

          The group moves on to discuss a handout from their Tapestry tutor on "formative use of summative tests" - a new area for discussion. They opt for various techniques, including "find it, fix it" where the pupil is told how many wrong answers there are, but not which ones, and to fix them.

          So, does it work? So far, so good, at this Dumfries and Galloway school. It's not continuing professional development imposed from above: they have ownership of it, there's mutual support, and it's fun. But at this stage, they don't feel they're doing less of anything.

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