Pupils take hold of the teaching

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
An approach to lessons that extends student voice and puts children in the pedagogical driving seat is catching on fast

Schools are taking student voice to a new level by encouraging pupils to teach each other and to work with staff on planning lessons.

Advocates say the practice frees teachers to focus on pupils who need extra attention, improves behaviour and leads to better, more engaging classes.

But it may alarm critics who fear pupils have too much power in schools. At Lipson Community College, a "lead learners" policy sees pupils in all years teaching others of the same age for parts of lessons.

The Plymouth secondary describes its approach in a presentation that shows a picture of pupils working, with the caption: "Where is the teacher?"

Only a handful of secondaries have adopted the idea, but it is spreading rapidly via the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.

"Co-construction", in which pupils work alongside teachers to plan lessons, is more common.

Pupils at Cramlington Community High School in Northumberland jointly plan some of their curriculum, and may soon help to teach. Last term, citizenship lessons were altered after they called staff to a "crisis meeting". Pupils were unhappy about the lack of freedom they had in organising their work.

The news comes as controversy surrounds student voice. In November, a new law forcing schools to consult pupils on teaching was described as "crazy" by unions that fear too much pupil power will leave teachers open to abuse.

But Steve Baker, head of Lipson, said his lead learners policy avoids the worst pitfalls of student voice because pupils are working with teachers and not reporting on them.

He believes the more ubiquitous school councils are more dangerous. "If you are not careful, student councils can undermine teachers by giving feedback that is quite sensitive to whoever is listening," he said. "We feel student voice is most effective at classroom level."

In November, Ofsted said allowing pupils to help each other learn at the school had "a very positive effect on behaviour and motivation".

It has also had international support. John Hattie of Auckland University spent 15 years synthesising more than 50,000 individual pieces of school research.

He ranked "reciprocal teaching", in which "each student takes a turn at being the `teacher'" as the ninth most effective out of 138 possible ways of raising achievement.

Suzanne Hubble, a science teacher at Lipson, said when pupils took over lessons she had a better sense of what was going on in class.

"When you teach, sometimes it is like having blinkers on," she said. "You are so focused on your delivery that you might miss things, such as which pupils are disengaged."

Damian Clark, a humanities teacher at Cramlington, said his school was interested in introducing lead learning. It has already involved pupils in designing some lessons as "there was a realisation that we were probably under-utilising the power of their experience".

Teachers retained a veto, but had only needed to say no to about 10 per cent of pupils' ideas.

When asked what happened if pupils asked to study something that did not support the national curriculum, Sophie, a Cramlington pupil, said: "We went through a bit of that phase because we felt there was a lot of ageism about teenagers and we wanted to put that in (citizenship lessons).

"We felt black civil rights was interesting, but we wanted to get our topics put in and we are still pushing for it because we think people are getting discriminated against."

Pupils are also involved in planning lessons at Lipson. Corey Smerdon, 11, said: "We like this because we get to do what we like. It also makes us feel important.

"It is all about how we want to learn and our teachers really listen. Because our lessons are enjoyed by students, it means we learn more and behaviour is much better."

Where's the teacher?

How pupils at Lipson Community College help each other learn.

  • The "lead learners" scheme works best if used across the whole school.
  • Each class may have four or five small groups each led by a pupil "lead learner".
  • They should be only just ahead of the pupils they are helping to teach.
  • Because they have to break down the work to teach it, it helps their own learning.
  • Various pupils will be lead learners in different subjects, according to their individual strengths.
  • It is up to teachers to decide whether they want to take part in the lead learners scheme. At Lipson, the majority have done so.
  • It should be "bottom up" rather than "top down", with individual teachers deciding what is most appropriate for their lessons.

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