In this insightful post, Dr Lyn Dawes highlights the challenges teachers face in making every child feel like they truly belong to “their class” – and shares a number of practical strategies for how we can succeed in this vital work.
A NEW SCHOOL YEAR
For teachers, a new term is a mix of hopeful anticipation and a kind of steeling yourself for the long haul to Christmas. For children – it depends. The fresh uniform and pencil case and a feeling of having done well in the previous year – the chance to catch up with friends – mean that there’s everything to look forward to.
But for new beginners, those who know they have not done well so far, those muddled by their living circumstances or fearful of particular schoolmates, those who have difficult relationships with their peers or an antipathy to being enclosed in a classroom – dread is not too strong a word. However. All arrive and are welcomed in, and term begins.
For the child, inclusion in a school class is determined by unknown factors, a mix of chance circumstances based on random things like where you live, your birthday and maybe your gender, and less random but equally obscure criteria like the school’s selection of you for one group or another. Sometimes ‘ability’ plays a part, or previous experience, what your parents think, or how you have conducted yourself so far at school. The child has no choice of ‘Our Class’.
WHAT CAN MAKE THE DIFFERENCE?
It astonishes me sometimes that children are so amenable; they go where they are asked. For some, their uncertainty and unhappiness indicates their unease. ‘Our Class’ is not a very homogenous unit. Unnecessary and unhelpful inequalities which are present on the first day of term may colour the entire school year for some individuals. Problems with learning or social interaction (both key aspects of a good education) may either be consolidated by the time we get to next summer; or they may be diminished. What can make the difference?
A new room or furniture, interactive displays, a better reading corner, access to resources, interesting pictures, better natural lighting – physical factors play their part. What you teach and how you teach it plays an even bigger part.
But the children themselves are the key factor in each other’s school lives. They are what will make the most difference to one another’s learning and social wellbeing or otherwise.
THE SOCIAL FABRIC OF THE CLASSROOM
It’s possible, sometimes, to see how children establish their friendships, their ‘pecking order’ and their likes and dislikes. More often there are invisible undercurrents that completely influence social relationships for better or worse and yet we may never know how or why.
It is this social aspect of classroom life that is so crucial, and that can be changed for the better. It was a hard lesson for me to realise with some shock that by the end of a school year, some children in my class had never spoken directly to one another. I thought it was my fault, and I still agree with that assessment.
As a teacher, with 30 or so of them and only one of you, what can you do? You have them for so little of their day; you must help them through a complex curriculum; there are so many demands. They are volatile and emotional, and may be fine all morning, but at lunch or during lessons, everything can go wrong.
There are intractable and abstract parameters to every decision you take. The ‘alpha’ children know very well who they are. The disaffected will continue to be so. The inarticulate and ill-prepared are never going to be able to keep up with the class bright sparks and should not be in a position to hold them back.
Those who put up their hands, who approach you directly with their ideas or queries, are going to create a different relationship with you and your Teaching Assistant than those who seem to simply look on, who want to disrupt things, or change the agenda from engaging with learning to something else much less constructive.
You cannot be with the children once they leave the classroom at break times or to go home. Your influence is limited to the five or six hours when they are with you. What can you do?
And yet it’s evident that doing nothing maintains what is a childishly simple version of classroom interaction, in which everyone is for themselves, friends exclude others, learning is winning, immediate vocal responses are required, and it is socially dangerous to step out of the role or situation allotted to you.
You know your place. This is how children organise themselves (many adult spaces also operate in this way). We have to intervene pretty early on in the school year if we are to ensure a more sophisticated and useful ethos in which equal access to teaching and learning ensures engagement and development for every child.
WHAT DOES ‘INTERVENTION’ LOOK LIKE?
The ways children in a classroom interact, by which I mean speak and listen to one another, are many and various. A brief summary might be:
- Sharing understanding or knowledge at teacher’s request
- Listening to and giving presentations
Groups or pairs:
- Talking about their work interspersed with talking about themselves
- Sharing ‘the right answer’
- In dispute
- Work sharing – collaboration to get something done
- Friendship conversations
Working without direct adult support, children in classrooms generally do not discuss knowledge, new ideas, hypothetical thoughts or creative solutions. It’s too difficult and socially risky. Instead they chat, sticking to tried and tested ways of getting on with their classmates, reserving all that thinking until a secure opportunity arises maybe in whole class time, maybe when working individually.
But the resources of one another’s minds are there, available to them, if only they could cut through the very real social barriers. Fortunately, children can be taught that it is their responsibility to get on well with one another; they can be taught why, and how. Getting on well rests on always ensuring good communication. And communication skills – oracy skills – are completely teachable. This is what will make the difference to whether children feel they are part of ‘Our Class’ or that it is an imposition and they are grudgingly carried along with it.
AN UNSOCIAL VS. A SOCIABLE CLASS
At worst, a class may be characterised by a competitive atmosphere, in which children use their voices to compete for teacher time and attention, resources, recognition of achievement, class status and power. Working quickly and getting things done, invariably correct answers and things like neatness, are the factors that really matter and these are given high priority.
Responding to teacher input is seen as ‘boring’, that childish cover-all, meaning ‘reprehensible’. It does you no good, being in league with ‘them’ – that is, adults. Distrust is everywhere. The only way up is by standing on others – doing better than your classmates. Talk is controlled and brief, factual responses to teacher questions are highly prized. Only some children speak. The class may be accused of ‘not listening’. Silence, or at least quietness, indicates ‘working’. Children ignore or denigrate one another, and small groups form which do not interact well.
At best, children recognise their classroom as a unique space in which they can think, collaborate and learn together. The class is a collective in which knowledge and understanding are freely shared so that no individual is left behind, no-one is ‘top’, and the resources everyone brings are pooled and valued.
Talk is used to ask questions, express uncertainty or offer suggestions, with a focus on the topic in hand. Every child contributes through talk, and listens attentively in whole class and group situations. There may be some social talk but children can be relied on to lead conversation back to their topic. A meaningful level of talk indicates ‘working’. Learning and understanding are shared enterprises which are carefully fostered and enjoyed, with every individual recognised as contributing different strengths.
This sounds utopian and a bit unachievable, but it is perfectly possible, through teaching children that this is what we want, and this is how they can do it; oracy skills.
AT BEST – PRACTICAL STEPS
Firstly, children have to be directly taught that learning happens through social interaction, and that their class is their social unit for learning. You can tell them this, and teach them to understand. Explain that by thinking together, they are learning a strategy for reasoning which will stand them in good stead when they have to think alone. Also remind them that this is a new start; they are growing up; they have the capacity to learn productive ways to go on in a classroom, leaving any previous competitive style in their past.
There are so many examples of collaborative learning and creativity that they can look at, and their contemporary heroes are the first to investigate. Individual sports people, rock stars, astronauts, environmental activists, TV personalities, do not actually exist. They are all part of teams, groups, organisations, designed to help individuals become the best they can.
The child can see themselves as part of ‘Our Class’ – a new group – specially designed to suit them in terms of physical environment and in terms of who they will talk to and listen to. They must step up and take the responsibility of learning to be collaborative. It certainly doesn’t come naturally, but it certainly can be learned. Fortunately the social and learning benefits become apparent so readily that a child can almost relax into learning once it becomes a common cause.
Children don’t really learn in leaps and bounds, but gently and incrementally, cumulatively and by inquiry and realisation. The chance to talk things through with their classmates enables this careful personal construction of concepts, ideas and thoughts, to arise in curriculum contexts.
Misconceptions can be aired and examined. Sharing a range of points of view indicates the differences between us, so that there is chance to appreciate what this offers, and to take from conversations the raw materials for an individual new direction in thinking.
Being listened to and understood and knowing that you have contributed to what others think, is a strongly positive feeling. In ‘Our Class’, a talk-focused classroom, every child can experience this and make it happen as frequently as possible.
Children need specific and careful lessons in listening. Listening in a collaborative classroom is not just used to pick out key facts for hands-up time, but to hear information and to reflect on it, to consider alternatives and questions, to think of suggestions and helpful feedback.
Attentive listening is the key to productive and enjoyable classroom learning. We can teach children to listen by sitting them all down together and making them be quiet while we talk. That’s important and occasionally crucial. But they also need lessons in listening to one another when no adult is directly involved, concentrating on what is said and how they can build on it. This is much more difficult, but, far from impossible. They can do it.
Children’s willingness to speak out and use their ideas depends largely on their classmate’s willingness to listen and respond with respect and appreciation. Perhaps they have this in common with all other human beings – but children are especially responsive and susceptible to their environment. Their talk environment shapes their talk. They learn to manage their contributions to their class very early on in their school days.
Some children thrive on being in the limelight, attracting attention and having the confidence to speak out. Others may quickly resort to saying nothing, always.
Our aim as teachers is not to change their personalities, but to ensure that every child has a voice, and that the group response to a child’s voice is invariably encouraging and wholesome. Unless we do so, not only is the child’s classroom life blighted, but the class is diminished by loss of their thoughts and ideas.
The class needs to be directly taught the ‘talk tools’ which are essential if they are to learn from and with one another, and must always be encouraged to apply high expectations for talk together in lesson times. This is not an additional burden to be added to all the demands on class time. Every area of the curriculum offers lots of chances for speaking and listening.
A focus on oracy, modelling use of specific talk tools (Can I ask a question? Could you explain again? What do think?… and so on) – asking for examples of how this talk has gone in your plenary session, evaluation of talk as well as curriculum learning, integrates the teaching of key oracy skills into everyday classroom life.
A helpful focus for teaching talk skills is to think about teaching the children how to reason. Reasoning can help them to explain and understand their own ideas, to be able to see a range of points of view, and to be flexible and change their mind about things. Do your class know what reasons are, and why they are important? Can they identify reasoning when they hear it in talk? Can they use the appropriate talk tools, such as:
What do you think? Why do you think that? Can you explain or add a little more? Can you say what leads you to have your opinion? Which reason influences you most, and why?
You can teach children to use and recognise such phrases as a way in to reasoning, a helpful way of thinking. Such simple queries from one child to another can be very productive, and coupled with active listening, enable pairs and groups to express ideas and discuss what everyone thinks. Children may or may not have experienced reasoning conversations. Whichever is the case, they may not know that this measured way of talking and thinking is expected of them in classroom situations.
Similarly, you can teach other ways to talk. Explaining, describing, elaborating, evaluating, all start with the teaching and learning of simple talk tools, which you model and highlight in feedback sessions, and the children can use and apply.
Have you ever been to a meeting where everyone has to introduce themselves? It’s a common strategy and much as some of us dread it, it does two things; it makes sure everyone has recognised one another, and it makes sure everyone has spoken aloud.
Both of these things have to happen for the children in your class. Unfamiliarity creates a barrier to sharing ideas; and being quiet is a state that is very hard to break out of.
I am definitely not advocating sessions of ‘Everyone say who they are’. No. Teachers are very creative and know their class of children well enough to be able to devise regular, brief activities where children must talk to one another.
Your aim for learning has to be made explicit to the children. They must know that they will be expected to work with absolutely everyone else in the class at some time (talk being work).
Personal animosity or preferences must be set aside. If every child is to benefit from learning, they must interact with everyone else to do such as tasks as to get something done, make a plan, share ideas, create something, read or write or comment on something, ask some questions, describe something, or take part in reasoning.
Children can learn to do so with openness, respect and a growing awareness that this way of working is enjoyable and important, and it is their own responsibility to be part of the talk for learning.
Case study: Reasoning circles
In a Year 4 class, the teacher talked with the children about her aim to establish a collaborative way of working. She explained that they must see one another as helpers, and talked about the special setting of the classroom as being unique and unusual in that everyone was equal in wanting to learn.
They were encouraged, for the talk sessions initially, to see one another as learning partners. To tie in with a science topic on Water, she created a set of ten cards (e.g. liquid, melt, freeze, life, clouds, the sea, dissolving, swimming).
The children stood in two circles, one within the other. The circles were asked to walk slowly in opposite directions. At some point she tapped a bell; children were paired with the nearest in the other circle. Each pair were given the cards and asked to take one at a time, and say as much as they could about the word, with encouragement from their partner, taking turns to talk, listen and ask questions. On completion, learning partners thanked one another and were asked to think about the quality of listening, thinking and talk they had experienced.
Children were asked for feedback about the science ideas associated with the vocabulary. They were also asked to say who they talked to, what they learned, what was interesting, amusing, or surprising; and who was a good listener, and how they knew. Any problems with interaction were talked about with the whole class so that strategies could be suggested and adopted for next time.
I have left out all the details about what makes oracy teaching and learning complicated. This is a long list including lack of time, competing priorities, children with special educational needs of many sorts, children with delayed language development, children who are learning to speak English, bright children who have no wish to share with others, and so on.
I believe that teachers commonly deal with such problems, if that is what they are. Teachers are used to children being ‘mixed ability’ for curriculum knowledge, and oracy skills are no different.
It does require a huge effort to start thinking in terms of the child’s voice, their understanding rather than their knowledge, their opinion rather than their compliant silence. Teachers are so good at talking with children. They offer a child the best, and maybe last, chance to learn the talk skills they will need to tackle a world of problems.
In summary, the child’s experience of being a member of the class depends largely on social factors; and this strongly influences their learning experience. Children’s development is encouraged by a rich and wholesome talk environment in which they know that they can ask and answer questions, that they will be listened to with respect, and that every one of their classmates will work and talk with them.
Creating a classroom in which learning is social depends on teaching children oracy skills. This is a rather slow process, but a very worthwhile one, offering as it does the opportunity for every child to feel at home in the classroom and to look forward to the oasis that is their school day, in which rational learning conversations and supportive talk make learning both interesting and achievable. The sense of being a really important part of ‘Our Class’ can offer the child a model for how to be an integral part of any group.