Some people say getting a good teacher is just a roll of the dice. But Year 11 French students at one Milton Keynes school have been using dice, among other methods, to attain dramatically improved GCSE scores in the language. The proportion of A to C grades increased in four years from 19 to 59 per cent. Clayton Hughes, joint head of modern languages, is now aiming for 70 per cent.
Mr Hughes, who started at Denbigh School mixed comprehensive as a newly qualified teacher seven years ago, has pioneered changes in teaching methods, especially for less-able and middle-range children. He asked his students to come up with ideas about how they would like to be taught. "I sought to develop new learning strategies", he says. "I attempted to include the students' voice in my research. This led on to developing interactive peer speaking and writing assessment activities in my classroom."
The approach is explained in a paper by Mr Hughes, The Use of New Learning Methods to Boost GCSE Grades in A French Class, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research in this autumn's issue of TOPIC.
Denbigh has links with Kingston University and staff are active in researching and developing new ideas. Clayton Hughes's quest for improved performance led him to the concept of "multiple intelligence" popularised by Howard Gardner and Alistair Smith (1996), which centre on practical approaches to learning based on accessing different types of intelligence and learning methods. This includes visual, auditory and kinaesthetic aids. Denbigh School believes the method is highly transferable and Mr Hughes is providing in-service training support in other subjects besides languages, including English, science and ICT. Mr Hughes and deputy head teacher Moyra Evans both stress that the successful approach has been developed through the combined efforts of all the staff in the modern languages department.
A Year 11 middle-range French class is a fast-paced experience from the moment the students arrive ("Ouvrez les cahiers, ouvrez les cahiers") until the bell goes as they are counting in multiples of three. Drawing on auditory stimuli, the session opens with "music to tune your brain". The classroom is festooned with prompts, keys words and linking words. Those leaving half way through, for a school trip, are drawn into the process ("les personnes pour la voyage s'il vous plait, bon weekend, au revoir").
Mr Hughes is passionate not only about young people learning through a variety of stimuli but also their being involved in each other's success. Much of the work the children do in a one-hour session is monitored by fellow pupils. They pair up, marking each other's conversational skills. A series of enquiries about sports preferences gets an A* for a 90-second reply, A for 80 seconds, B for 70 and so on. "The pupils enjoy grading each other and they work well. This is letting them into the secret garden of doing well," says Mr Hughes.
Mr Hughes was concerned that learning was "not sticking" in students' minds and sought for ways in which they could have more "ownership" of the process. Methods have included encouraging two pupils who wrote and performed a blues song composed only of linking words.
Many other approaches developed out of brainstorming by students. One such session produced ideas for learning present-tense vebs: memory maps, Post-it notes, recording on tapes to be played before going asleep and dice-rolling, giving a part of a verb for every number. Students were involved in the process of developing the new methods and monitoring which individuals found them helpful. Mr Hughes gives an example of a lesson to explain how this was done:
"I told the students that the aim of the lesson was to learn the present tense verbs for a test at the end of the lesson, but I wanted them to decide on how they were going to learn them. I wrote VAK (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic) on the board and asked the students, in pairs, to brainstorm as many learning methods as possible.
"The students were active in their own learning right from the start of the lesson. They came up with these ideas for VAK methods of learning present tense verbs:
V Memory maps; posters; Post-it notes; make up a game;
A Record the verbs on to a tape and listen to it before going to sleep, practise with your partner; make up a song; shout them out; repeat the verbs to your partner K Clap as you say each verb; use dice: choose one of the verbs to practise, number each part of the verb, then as you roll the dice you must say the part of the verb your number corresponds to.
"The dice method was very popular - one of the best lessons I've ever had with this class. Students record these lessons in journals and their comments for this lesson were very positive: 'Enjoyed this lesson because we did a lot of useful things that will help me in revision. I think the best thing I liked was revising the verbs (unusual as it may seem)'... 'This has possibly been the most useful and interesting lesson we've had in a long time ... the revision techniques we learned were practical and I will use some of them at home.'
"By allowing the students' ownership of their own learning in this lesson, they were active learners. I was very pleased that some students had developed their own individualised learning method. They were thinking about what they learned (the verbs) and also how they learned (the methods they used). By inputting and processing their learning in a way which was, as one student noted, 'interesting and fun', the learning was more memorable than usual."
Student response has been enthusiastic: "I think the song at the beginning was a good idea, as putting the important words to music helps me to remember", was one journal comment following the blues song lesson.
After a session in which students had to explain grammatical terms to the rest of the class, one student wrote: "Fun lesson. Learned about superlatives. It was good to learn from classmates."
Student Gareth Harris says: "I didn't have a clue about French until I came to this school. The teaching has made a difference."
Laura Arnold, currently in the middle range, says she is now considering doing A-level French: "I can feel my confidence increasing."
Denbigh has good A to Cs in most subjects. In its last OFSTED report, for 1994, inspectors had some compliments for modern languages teaching even though the GCSE results were half the national average. Now the progress made by Clayton Hughes and his colleagues is impressive. Whether they use dice or not, the success seems to be more than pure chance.
Clayton Hughes is joint head of modern languages department at Denbigh School, Milton Keynes.NFER publications, tel: 01753 574123