“A survey of two hundred young people in an inner city secondary school found that 75% of them had communication problems that hampered relationships, behaviour and learning.”
The Communication Trust
65% of young people in young offender institutions have communication difficulties. Reading, writing, communication (literacy)
Ofsted paper Oct 2011
No pens day is a whole school initiative designed to help students know the value, importance and power of effective communication. Looking back to my first lessons as a student teacher, I can remember being really proud when the Head of Department told me that I had great control over the pupils. He said they were always so quiet and obedient when he observed me and they hung on my every word. I thought this meant great learning was taking place; now I know better.
Perfect behaviour does not always mean perfect learning. How did I know my lesson was making the right connections in my pupils’ minds? How did I know they understood? Of course, I took their books home at the end of the week and wrote HUGE comments to further impress the HOD. This would take a great deal of time and pupils would have to wait for feedback. If we can get pupils to articulate their understanding there and then and we really listen to their responses, that review of learning becomes instant and effective. Opportunities to develop our pupils’ communication skills and avoid them ending up like the statistics above should not be being missed. Our no pens day aimed to start the ball rolling towards righting that wrong.
We launched the idea to staff during a training day in September based on RWCM (reading, writing, communication and mathematics). We rolled out our bespoke resources, designed to support staff in becoming teachers of RWCM. Following that, reflection, preparation and collaboration time was provided to ensure that our no pens day was successful. Departments were offered support for their planning. Students were also given a special assembly to help them see the bigger picture.
I am desperate to now start telling you about the amazing lesson that I had with my Y9 pupils exploring leadership in Lord of the Flies but I suspect the response to that might be something along the lines of “yeah but it is easy in English.” I agree, speaking and listening is easy as it is part of our content. For that reason, I will avoid this and instead go for the opposite end of the spectrum and show you how this might work in Maths.
I have chosen to demonstrate a lesson on shape, space and measurements. Pupils in this lesson will be using discussion and research to persuade their teacher that they have made progress in their knowledge and ability from the beginning of the lesson to the end. I have used APP criteria to determine the levels of mathematical understanding in this lesson; you can use whichever criteria you would ordinarily use to determine levels.
As pupils enter, they are faced with the above image and question and are asked to discuss the answer in their groups. At this point the differentiation is by outcome as a level two pupil might discuss the shapes that they see whereas a level five pupil might discuss the different angles contained within the shapes. Listen to pupils’ responses and know their starting level. You alone are allowed a pen and should use it to note on a register the level pupils are reaching through discussion.
Pupils are given a box full of items. This could be wheels, measuring instruments, cut out shapes, solid shapes, scissors, glue etc…. They are told that they must make progress in this lesson and will be doing this by persuading you that there is Maths in their box. On their tables is an effective communication mat, a laminated A3 sheet, outlining ideas such as using effective vocabulary, persuasive techniques, what confidence looks like, how and when to use gesture and those all important listening skills.
This is where the differentiation really kicks in, show pupils a grid of progress and ask them where they think they should begin based on their previous discussion.
Get them to think about the words they were using to describe the Maths in the image and link it to the vocabulary in the grid. The grid will link to a task, which will allow them to build their knowledge and make progress; they should then work their way through the tasks (each one being a level higher than the last) to ensure progress. You could use a symbol for each level or just have the number of the level on it so that pupils can easily find their chosen tasks. This is similar to what I do with SOLO boxes if you want further information on how this works.
For example: A pupil has been discussing the different names for all of the angles contained in the image above (multi). To get to the next level, he needs to begin to solve problems using his knowledge of angles (relational). His task will ask him to consider the geometrical problems within his box of shapes and will direct him to reading material on what this means. If you are lucky enough to have ipads in your classroom, have them set up on revision guides for the different levels. If not, good old fashioned printed information stuck around your room will have the same effect.
Search for Meaning
As pupils are working, listen to their conversations and intervene with questions to help keep them continue to make progress. Pupils should never get to the “end” as there is always more to discover. If you hear pupils talking confidently about the properties and angles within their box and they don’t seem to be looking to move to the next level, ask them if they feel expert enough to move on and guide them to choosing the next level. If you see pupils really struggling to solve geometrical problems, ask them if they have really understood angles and make it ok to move backwards to the previous task to be able to move forwards eventually. They are still making progress as they are learning something they did not know.
Do not forget about your communication mat either. The literacy does not have to take over the mathematical learning but being able to articulate their ideas will help them to make sense of the ideas that they have. At the start of the lesson, level four pupils might have been using level two terminology. They would have started at an easy task and worked their way quickly towards something that challenged them which would raise their confidence in now using the mathematical terms they are learning.
Challenge poor vocabulary. If you hear a group discussing how trying to measure a circle with a set square is “stupid,” point at the vocabulary section of the mat and ask them if there are any better words that would make their argument stronger. The pupils might then replace stupid with “ineffective,” increasing the formality of their argument. Highlight effective communication that you see, praise it and use it as a model for the other groups. “Everyone, Billy just replaced an informal word with a more formal choice; it has really made his argument stronger.”
Avoid the clichéd presentation at the end as it takes too long and bores everyone. Instead, ask pupils to teach each other what they now know by persuading another group that there is Maths in their box. You can set this up like jigsaw groups. Once again, have your register handy and really listen for progression. Pupils should have learned new mathematical ideas and techniques and should be confidently presenting them to a group of peers, using effective communication. They can use their communication mats to remind themselves of what this looks and sounds like as they present whatever they have created from their box of tricks.
There are so many benefits to having a noisy classroom like this. You can listen for misconceptions to inform your planning and you can offer feedback there and then on their knowledge and understanding. Although you do have to think carefully about the set up of a lesson like this, during the lesson, you are not the one doing the hard work. The progressive tasks allow pupils to be independent and you are free to advise, question, encourage and praise.
The danger with no pen day is that people will see it as an excuse to stick on a DVD, to do group work for the sake of doing group work, to make pupils work independently and sit back with a coffee as they get it wrong and start hitting each other with rulers.
To get RWCM right is not to just do it because Ofsted say so. The teachers’ planning, preparation and collaboration stage of creating this no pens day was far more important than the day itself. Teachers need to see the bigger picture, the reason behind this way of thinking and the benefits for both themselves and their students. Just as I realised that good behaviour does not equal good learning, so too have I realised the importance of never forcing literacy and numeracy into your subject for the sake of it. I have stopped asking pupils that can classify quadrilaterals to count the lines in a poem as I hope Maths teachers will stop asking pupils who can create sonnets to spell the number one.