Cooperative Learning in MFL

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This is a blogged version of a CPD session I delivered to MFL departments in St Alban’s and Folkestone this year. The Prezi I used can be found here. The session aims were:

  • to look at strategies for planning for effective group work in MFL lessons.
  • to look into ways of encouraging a maximum of TL speaking by students.

At the base: the theory

It is important first and foremost to remember who we (secondary teachers) are doing all this for: teenagers. Stroppy, difficult, impetuous TEENAGERS. Studies have shown that there is a reason that we are so quick to assign these adjectives to adolescents; the teenage brain is not a young adult brain, but an entity in itself. It seems self-evident when you say it out loud, but I confess that I had never considered that teenagers were programmed to behave in the ways they do because of their brain chemistry until it was pointed out during a CPD session run by science teacher and research student Claire Tyson when I was working at Homewood School & Sixth Form Centre in Kent.

Claire made the analogy that a brain was like a sound system, with the prefrontal cortex as the remote control. The problem is that in a teenage brain, the prefrontal cortex isn’t yet properly connected, so teenagers make most of their judgements using a more primitive area at the back of the brain. They have the sound system, but no remote control! This produces the following results:

  • Teenagers typically experience lack of foresight; emotional volatility; impulsiveness; lack of thought for others.
  • Heightened sensitivity to dopamine means that teenagers value rewards more heavily than adults.
  • A similar sensitivity to oxytocin means that teenagers treat peer exclusion in the same way as threats to physical health or food supply.
  • Teenage brains don’t register delayed gratification – the appeal of fun now is too strong!

Stage 1: The Learning Environment

When we consider all of these points, it is easy to see that the typical classroom is far from being tailored to teenagers’ needs and not conducive to helping them to learn in a way that is going to be most effective for them. Yes – teenagers need to learn to adapt to a formal environment, but not through force. As teachers, it is surely our job to help them to learn in the best way for them? Do teenagers relate to their environment in the same way as adults? Can we have the same expectations of teenagers as adults? Should we treat teenagers differently because they are teenagers?

“Sensitivity to oxytocin means that teenagers treat peer exclusion in the same way as threats to physical health or food supply.”

In order to exploit this fact, and simultaneously tick the Ofsted boxes that value a variety of learning tasks (from individual, to pair and group work) I set about rearranging my classroom: I used grouped tables rather than rows to facilitate discussion and make it easier to switch between different types of task; each table became a team which could win points for good collaboration and effort; I designed target-language manage-mats based on those I had come across at a Kagan method CPD session to stream-line my classroom organisation and ensure that all pupils could be actively involved in their learning.

Stage 2: Cooperative Learning

At a recent conference in London on mindset, featuring the great Carol Dweck,  presenter Chris Watkins noted that the results of a survey that he had conducted showed that

“80% of teachers’ memories of ‘best’ learning experiences are active, collaborative, learner-driven and learning-focused”.

Some delegates argued that this was all very well, but that with a curriculum to deliver, there was no time for all this ‘extra’ stuff. Watkins succinctly retorted that he had proven that orientation towards better learning rather than performance actually improved performance itself! With this in mind, I aspire to plan activities which promote collaboration and cooperation to improve learning and skills. Some of these have been mentioned in previous posts, but you can never have too much of a good thing, right?!

  1. RallyCoach
    This is a great activity when practising skills that have a particular method to follow, like conjugation or negation. Rather than having students complete practise exercises in the traditional way, working through a textbook or a worksheet, the worksheet is split in half and students complete the acivities in pairs. As they do, they explain what they are doing to their partner who watches and listens, and, if they need to, questions and critiques. This process reinforces the method in both students’ minds. RallyCoach lends itself particularly well to differentiation because you can pair stronger students with weaker ones for coaching purposes.
  2. Structured Pair Work
    When practising skills as a whole class, generally with mini whiteboards, I once again ask students to work in pairs. The manage mats I mentioned earlier assign each student in the group a number 1 – 4 and the letter A or B. Quite simply, person A has a go at the first activity, person B at the second, and so on. Since both partners win a point if theirs is the first correct answer shown, the student not writing is still motivated to check that their partner’s work is correct to avoid wasting time making corrections.
  3. Structured Group Work
    This works on the same principal as the pair work activities, but uses the numbers on the manage mats instead of the letters. Each student is allocated a role for each exercise, and the roles are rotated throughout the activity to ensure that everyone practises the different skills.
  4. Quiz-Quiz-Trade
    Rather than solely using choral repetition as a way of drilling vocabulary, which enables each student to repeat each word a maximum ten times or so, I use Quiz-Quiz-Trade to maximise the practise stage for every individual. Students circulate, each with a card with a target language phrase and its English translation written upon it. They pair up, and partner A reads the target language phrase. Partner B responds with the translation and then they swap roles. Partners then swap cards and circulate again before finding another partner and repeat the process.
Assigning roles during a running dictation activity encouraged teamwork & discussions about learning, reinforcing students' understanding of the language structures they were practising.

Assigning roles during a running dictation activity encouraged teamwork & discussions about learning, reinforcing students’ understanding of the language structures they were practising.

The Summit: Speaking to Learn

The educational system we have inherited clearly values writing much more heavily than speaking, but ask yourself: is speaking more important than writing? Do students get enough opportunities to speak in MFL lessons in order to prepare them for their controlled speaking assessments? Every time I have asked teachers this question,  the answer has been a resounding NO! Here,  then, are some useful tools to improve pupils’ oral fluency whilst still learning the structures and vocabulary they need:

  1. Phonics
    I won’t say too much about this; details can be found in my last post about French Phonics. Teaching these to my students has really paid dividends, because not only do they make far fewer of the common mistakes to which MFL teachers have become accustomed, they are also now far better at decoding words for themselves and thus able to expand their own vocabulary independently of any input from me.
  2. Songs
    Again, information about the use of songs can be found in a previous post.
  3. Simple Games
    At a PGCE mentors’ conference recently, the lecturer mentioned the practice stage of the PPP model (Presentation – Practice – Production) as being the weakest for trainee teachers, and urged us to show them how to “find 45 excuses to get the kids to say the same word”. This turn of phrase really hit the nail on the head, because we all know that it is through repetition that students improve their fluency. Choral repetition can, however, become boring. I therefore try to vary ‘repetition’ activities with a ludic element in my lessons to ‘hide’ from students the fact that they are repeating vocabulary. This could simply be by using dice to take it in turns to build sentences using the vocabulary and structures we have been practising. Similarly, having students play noughts-and-crosses in pairs using language on the board rather than playing as a whole class maximises pupil use of the target language. My favourite game, however, has to be Empreinte Digitale or Huella Digital: student 1 selects a phrase at random from a numbered list and reads this to the group. Students 2 – 4 then race to put their finger on the correct picture in a grid in the middle of the table. Each student takes it in turns reading, so all students are able to practise their speaking and listening skills.

The End

Wow. That has to be my longest post to date. Hopefully it will keep @flane (my biggest critic!) satisfied for a while! 😉

Optimus Education: Outstanding Secondary Learning and Teaching One-Day National Conference 2012

Going out of school for CPD is always a mixed blessing; it’s nice to escape from the intense pressure that is school and, as much as I love my students, sometimes I need to be away from the white noise of teenagers’ learning and emotional needs; but for those of us so close to the capital, it’s also a day of busy public transport, an early rise and a late return. Still, I am lucky to be in a school that allows teachers to go out for training, and even luckier that I was trusted to go in the place of the member of senior leadership who was supposed to be going originally. Thus, on 14th October, I found myself stepping off the HS1 into London’s St Pancras station and heading to Brompton for the OptimusEd Outstanding T&L Conference 2012. Here’s a review of what I saw and heard:

Keynote 1 – Ofsted Update, Gill Jones HMI

Gill Jones’ Ofsted update was a little late for me, since Ofsted came and went last term (and told us we were Outstanding!). Nonetheless, her comments seemed to corroborate my experience of Ofsted and will be useful for anyone dreading their impending visit:

  • The quality of teaching is the top factor relating to pupils’ success,
  • Inspectors observe pupils’ learning, not teacher’s teaching,
  • Teachers not expected to do everything required in one lesson,
  • No one teaching methodology is preferred,
  • SLT observations should record progress of particular students in groups,
  • Literacy should ensure students use relevant subject-specific vocabulary,
  • SMSC is observed in the corridors as well as in lessons.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Modification of lesson observation forms to account for pupil progress,
  • Literacy policy embedded in all lessons.

Keynote 2 – Embedding Outstanding Teaching & Learning, Claire Gadsby, T&L Consultant

Claire Gadsby’s talk was a mixture of useful suggestions and anecdotal evidence on strategies to encourage staff to work together to improve teaching and learning throughout the school:

  • Outstanding practice should be modelled for busy teachers to enable them to see it working,
  • Avoid ‘overload’ through ownership, by involving teachers in developing ideas for outstanding T&L,
  • CPD should be as engaging as the lessons we try to plan for pupils,
  • Feedback should be shared in a variety of ways:
    • Pecha Kucha,
    • Staff learning wall,
    • WAGOLL (what a good one looks like),
  • CPD should include variety (eg: incidental CPD – placing random objects in the staff room),
  • Coaches should co-plan and co-teach.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Varied feedback models embedded in CPD sessions,
  • Introduction of a staff learning wall,
  • Use of videos of activities during CPD sessions.

Keynote 3 – Independent Learning, Will Ord, Director of Thinking Education

Will Ord’s Keynote on independent learning was as energetic and inspirational as his workshop on questioning:

  • Encourage staff to teach a ‘Golden Lesson’ every week where they try out a new idea,
  • Embed independent learning skills into lesson objectives (eg: to learn how to solve quadratic equations; to learnt to use questioning to improve our learning),
  • Pupils time teachers to see how much of the lesson they spend speaking (sometimes up to 90%!),
  • Use of Learning Warriors – weekly celebration of resilience in the classroom.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Introduction of weekly departmental thinking skills objectives for each year group.

Session 1B – Questioning, Will Ord, Director of Thinking Education

Will Ord’s workshop focused on the use of questioning to encourage higher-order thinking, not only by teachers, but also by training and encouraging pupils to ask the right questions:

  • Remember that different questions exercise different thinking skills,
  • Use phrasing so that options aren’t limited (what might the answer be not what is the answer),
  • Encourage students to use higher order questions in their discussions (a selection was given on the handout),
  • Use stimulus-story-concepts-questions model to lead students to ask more searching questions,
  • Use lego bricks to encourage students to build discussion based on what their friends have said.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Introduction of higher order question posters in classrooms,
  • Training on the use of stimuli in lessons,
  • Investment in sets of lego bricks for departments.

Session 2C – Language for Learning, Sophie Holdforth, Hackney Learning Trust

Sophie Holdforth’s slightly quirky session was actually very inspiring and introduced me to some knew cooperative learning-style stragies that I hadn’t seen before. I really enjoyed this one, even if she did make me wear a (very!) smelly deerstalker hat:

  • Writing has acquired a higher status than speaking but this can be just as helpful for learning,
  • Ofsted are looking for oral literacy skills as well as reading & writing skills,
  • Reciprocal teaching encourages students to discuss by assigning them roles:
    • Questioner (asks questions about the text),
    • Clarifier (looks up unclear vocabulary),
    • Predictor (predicts what may happen next),
    • Summariser (uses own words to sum up),
  • Dialogic teaching uses prompts to scaffold dialogue,
  • Speak-alouds allow teachers to model thought processes about the text whilst reading.

Dialogic teaching uses prompts to scaffold dialogue, like these ones which I used during an A2 French lesson encouraging students to discuss their ideas on Voltaire’s Candide.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Introduction of think-alouds in reading groups,
  • Use of bookmarks to remind students of RT roles,
  • Posters of prompts for dialogic teaching in classrooms.

Session 3B – Differentiation, Paul Anstee, Author: The Differentiation Pocketbook

Differentiation is something I consider to be a personal weakness, so I was looking forward to getting some new, practical ideas to use in the classroom. Unfortunately, Paul Anstee’s workshop was neither engaging nor differentiated (despite him urging us to ensure that our in-school CPD was differentiated for teachers!). The hour-long session effectively defined what the different types of differentiation are and are not, and was a very disappointing end to an otherwise informative and thought-provoking conference.

If you’re interested to know more about any of the strategies mentioned above, feel free to comment or contact me either by email or on Twitter! I’ll be happy to share all of the resources I have!

PGCE vs GTP – the ITT wars

With this week’s announcement that trainee teachers will have to pass a personality test to be able to train (TES, 8 June 2012), teacher training is once again at the forefront of educational debate. But the big question is, personality test or not, which pathway should you follow?

Follow the yellow brick road

The two principal teacher training pathways in the UK are the Post/Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP). One of the main attractions of the GTP over the PGCE may be financial; six months into their term of office, the government laid out plans to cut ITT funding by up to 85% (TES, 23 November 2010). In reality, PGCE grants were drastically cut (my current trainee receives at least £3000 less than I did for the same course). GTP students, however, receive a salary from their placement school or the Teaching Agency with a fixed minimum which is based on the Unqualified Teachers’ Pay Scales, and accounts for a lot more than a normal PGCE bursary.

Delightful possibilities for exploitation

There is, of course a downside to being paid such a good salary to train. As Head of Languages Isabelle Jones puts it:

With the GTP you do get paid, but some schools can see you as cheap labour as well.

This is, unfortunately, all too true; whilst as a GTP student you are normally employed as supernumerary (ie: on top of the teaching staff already at the school), plenty of schools will happily use you to fill a gap in their timetable, leaving you alone in a class without the kind of regular feedback given to PGCE students. Teacher of MFL Nina Elliot agrees that this can be a risk, but nonetheless supports the GTP…

…with appropriate support and in a school which understands you are NOT a full time teacher.

This, in my opinion, is too big a variable to risk.

A question of experience

The GTP naturally lends itself to those coming to teaching from other industries and not straight from university, since it enables them to ‘train whilst working’ and still earn a salary. Yet self-proclaimed career-shifter Alex Foster (http://alexfoster.me.uk/), currently studying for his MFL PGCE, still thinks that this was a better route than the GTP:

Don’t do the GTP unless you already work in a school. I am glad, as a mature career shifter, of the support and peers from the PGCE approach.

This, I have to say, is one of the main reasons I support the PGCE over the GTP; peer mentoring is such an important process when you are learning to teach, and a lot of this can be lost through the GTP because contact with your peers is minimal. I was lucky to follow a unique course with Canterbury Christ Church University which saw me spend four months at university in France with seven other trainees; this was a real bonding experience and one that left me with some very close friends, with whom I still now share ideas and resources.

The other obvious advantage of the PGCE is that…

students get a wider range of experiences through their various placements and enrichment opportunities. (Isabelle Jones)

In other words, the experience you gain as a teacher in two contrasting placements of more-or-less equal length could be said to outweigh the experience of just one school with a brief placement elsewhere, particularly when you consider that this experience is also backed up by more educational theory than the GTP, delivered by the relevant ITT provider.

Whatever route you choose, the ultimate deciding factor of how well you are trained is how you respond to your training, so make sure you pick the best pathway for you.

Have your say

What do you think – GTP or PGCE? Or do you feel that one of the other pathways, such as Teach First, is a more viable option?

Quotations in the above post were taken from comments on Twitter, and have therefore been modified appropriately.

The School’s Network: Languages Subject Conference 2011

Last week, I took part in this year’s Languages Subject Conference held at Warwick University by The School’s Network (formerly The Specialist School’s and Academies Trust). With keynote speeches by Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, and more notably ALL’s Steven Fawkes, the conference was both informative and thought provoking.

Vocabulary Learning in the 21st Century

Lead by Rachel Hawkes from Comberton Village College, this session introduced some excellent ideas for teaching vocabulary in MFL. Her main points are summarised below. More information can be found on Rachel’s website at www.rachelhawkes.com.

  • Use of contextualised gap-fill worksheets, to teach vocabulary in a real context,
  • Use of a ‘core language’ sheet of around 100 words, along with the VocabMan,
  • Letting students choose their own vocabulary, relevant to them,
  • Using music to enable students to better remember words and phrases,
  • Using online programmes, including Quizlet and Vocab Express,

Sticky Grammar: making grammar teaching really work for all pupils

James Stubbs’ presentation on teaching grammar in sequences through the medium of the target language was slightly more controversial among the attendees. His method relied on working backwards from a model sentence or text and leading students to notice grammar rules themselves. His teaching was very energetic and enthusiastic, but questions remained as to whether a low-abilty group would have been able to keep up and remain engaged. From a teacher’s point-of view, I also think this session would have been more useful if James had presented a range of strategies that can be used in the classroom, rather than presenting just one lesson sequence. More details on his work can be found at www.jamesstubbslanguages.co.uk.

Ashfield ICE, bucking the trend in languages

Language College Coordinator at Ashfield School in Notts, Kim Brown, delivered a very interesting presentation on how she has been able to ‘buck the trend’ in low uptake figures for KS4 MFL and increase the profile of language study in a comprehensive school with a very broad catchment. She should be commended for her work in tying in Language NVQs with vocational study, her excellent links with international schools and her inspired cross-curricular work, most notably the LinguaVision competition. The school’s language college website is www.ashfield.notts.sch.uk/languagecollege.htm.