Many secondary schools accidentally operate a closed door culture; subjects are compartmentalised and, even though they are only separated by plasterboard, they may as well be operating in different time zones. The examination is not the end of the child; we want pupils to be successful in our individual subjects but creating whole children ready for life should be our core business. An obsession with testing dominates classrooms and closes doors between subjects. My mission is to demonstrate that there is more success to be had in opening these doors back up.
Have you ever asked children to review their learning in the form of a presentation? Pupils are given time in groups to prepare and, when the time comes, one child reads the words directly from a Powerpoint while the rest of the group pull faces, giggle or stare at the floor. Five presentations later, the class are bored of the same regurgitation of poorly presented ideas, resulting in an hour of boredom. Teachers of subjects other than English experiencing this may begin to doubt there is any merit in presentations and the same can often be said of group work too.
What’s the Point?
You’re right, the examinations in your subject (unless you are a drama or an English specialist) do not require pupils to communicate. They sit in rows and regurgitate their learning without speaking to another soul. So why should you bother to teach pupils how to communicate at all? Here are a few ideas…
Art Lesson Group Discussion
The teacher wants pupils to explore the work of Dali and Rembrandt to compare styles. They are examined on their ability to use past masters as inspiration to their own work.
Poor Communication: Pupils sit in silence and look at the pictures. One pupil takes charge of writing while the others have a conversation about last night’s football. The teacher asks the group for their thoughts; the lead pupil responds while all others look to him avoiding answering at all. One pupil has benefitted from this exercise and the others have forgotten the artists’ names the next day.
Quality Communication: Pupils take it in turns to discuss ideas. One pupil chairs the conversation and supports quieter pupils to communicate thoughts through questioning. The teacher questions the group and each pupil offers an articulate response, building upon the responses already given by their peers. The group has benefitted from this exercise leading to an ability to use these artists as inspiration in their examined piece.
Physical Education Lesson Team Game
Pupils are learning about the team sport volley ball and are asked to demonstrate their knowledge by playing a game. This is a top set Year 9 group and the teacher hopes that many will take PE for GCSE.
Poor Communication: When the ball comes across the net, the whole group run at it. Two pupils are taken to first aid following a collision. One player stands at the back avoiding the ball while the ‘team leader’ dives for every ball as if they are the only one playing. Shouts of, “You’re rubbish!” and “Are you blind?” can be heard within this team. This game leads to some pupils developing a hatred of team sports and a belief that they are rubbish. There is no way they will take PE at GCSE on purpose.
Quality Communication: Pre game, the team discuss positions; they question each other for strengths as a team leader articulates clear decisions about positioning and tactics. During the game, players communicate clearly to ensure that they know who should take each ball. Shouts of, “Excellent work!” and “Well done!” can be heard throughout. This team leave the pitch enthusiastic. They have a growth mind set thanks to the support of their peers and want to improve regardless of whether they have won or lost. They are looking forward to GCSE PE.
Geography Lesson Class Presentation
Pupils’ examination requires them to discuss a region they have investigated which has been formed by glaciers. The teacher asks them to prepare a presentation for the class.
Poor Communication: Two pupils take control of drawing pictures out of a text book while another two go off on the computer. The two on the computer print off lots of pictures of features of glaciers. They did not hear the instructions correctly and do not investigate a region. Pupils giggle through their presentation, pointing at pictures too small for the class to see. The group are able to recall names of features in their exam but fail the discussion question about a region of their choice.
Quality Communication: The group decide what needs to be done and how long each task will take. Pupils print off lots of information and work in pairs to summarise their findings before having a group discussion to collate results. During the presentation, each member has prompt cards to ensure they all remember which role they are taking in the discussion. Pupils use their learning from English and utilise language techniques to engage their audience. The whole class are engaged and learn interesting new facts about a particular glaciated region from this group. Learning is later put into an examination answer.
How do I change?
First and foremost, stop expecting pupils to do presentations or group work tasks without any guidance. You do not need to become a teacher of communication and forsake your own subject but you do need to do some investigation and provide pupils with learning links.
Find out what your English department teach, when and how they teach it. They should be teaching presentation skills, spoken language and group work to all pupils at some point in the year. Collaborate with your English colleagues, finding existing opportunities to allow pupils to practice skills which have been explicitly taught in English in your lessons.
Imagine, teachers of English have spent one half term teaching pupils how to work effectively in groups. Pupils have been using the following differentiated prompts to ensure success in group discussions:
Take it in turns to express your points while keeping eye contact with your group and gesticulating.
Listen carefully and await a pause to add to what has been said with your own thoughts.
Adapt what you say and how you say it to ensure that other people’s feelings are respected.
Take it in turns to express your thoughts and feelings in an extended response. Think about how you are engaging your listener with the words you use and how they may respond to what you are saying. Use your eye contact and body language to keep them engaged.
When listening, keep eye contact throughout and note down interesting points to elaborate upon later.
Take on different roles within groups by changing your choice of vocabulary, tone and body language to suit your purpose and audience.
When responding to your group, elaborate upon different points during extended turn taking. Plan what you are going to say, your body language and gestures before you take your turn.
When listening to others, await a pause and elaborate upon what they have said with further points and probing questions that lead to interesting discussion topics.
Pupils are able to take on any role within the group and are able to explain how they must adapt their verbal and non-verbal language to meet the demands of this new role.
NOTE: The criteria above was adapted from blue MAnglish mats (roughly NC levels 4 – 6) available in MAnglish
Following explicit teaching in English, pupils are well versed in group work roles, language and listening. Their science teacher, following collaboration with English, allows pupils to work in groups on a practical investigation into the calories contained in a crisp. The science teacher has been provided with ‘working at’ levels for speaking and listening by the English teacher and, as a result, is able to provide individual pupils with the correct group work prompts for success (above gold/ silver bronze). Pupils recognise the prompts from English lessons and a learning link is created.
By making the link between the explicit learning in English and the task about to be undertaken in science, pupils are able to see how useful and applicable effective group work is in a new context. You may think that pupils should automatically make the connection between their learning in English and a group work task elsewhere but pupils do not often make these links by themselves. Subjects are worlds apart to them and they will often leave learning behind if they are not supported to take it forward. Through this link, pupils are able to take extended turns, listen intently and question each other. They are able to take on effective group roles taught to them by their English teachers to conduct a successful investigation which leads to achievement in science.
Pupils need to see that learning is not compartmentalised to individual subjects. If pupils begin to see that all learning is applicable and transferable in this way, learning will never be left behind but taken forward, used and improved. Pupils allowed to practice the art of communication correctly and in many contexts will be able to speak confidently, listen intently, ask questions, build upon responses and collaborate as part of a team. Would a pupil displaying such skills find it difficult to engage in your subject? Effective communicators will leave examinations behind and go confidently into interviews, listen intently in lectures, respond with confidence in seminars, become part of effective future teams and will be in a far better position to lead successful lives.