This week, I was working with a teacher on a thinking activity for Reception children. We were carrying out a classification activity involving cards with pictures of six different mother and baby animals in six different colours and we were trying to encourage the children to verbalise their thinking by asking them to explain what they were doing. A child with autism and very limited language was in the group and the teacher was pleasantly surprised to hear him using animal names for the cards. When asked to pick three cards that were the same, he picked a random collection and the other children helped him put some back and make a collection of green animals.

Then we moved on to the tricky part of the activity – how to organise the cards so that all the colours were together and all the animals were together, essentially creating a two-way classification. This was tricky! Some of the more verbal children began the grid and slowly but surely, each child added a row, sometimes needing to move the odd card, so that colours were in rows AND animals in columns. Throughout, we asked them to explain what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Finally, there was one row left and the little boy with autism, who seemed to have been away with the fairies for most of the session, and certainly didn’t seem to have been listening, was given the blue cards one at a time. At first, repeating the word ‘rabbit’, he put his blue rabbit next to the cats. Another child explained to him why he was wrong and helped him move it next to the rabbits. Mouthing ‘dog’ he put his dog next to the ducks. Another child explained why this was wrong and this time, he moved the card himself to the correct location. And he then proceeded to place each of the additional four animal cards in the correct location, naming each one correctly. At which point his teacher wept with joy – she’d never seen him engage so successfully with learning.

We reflected after the lesson on what had helped this child engage with this very challenging activity.  We both believed that our careful interactions with the children which focused on getting them to verbalise their thinking, had helped him access the activity. He hadn’t seemed to be listening, but he obviously was.

Later on my way home, I read a new research report which analysed the impact of the implementation over three years of a child centred curriculum in Wales. The report showed that, whilst the new approach had raised attainment and improved wellbeing over all, there were some underlying issues with the quality of its implementation that seemed to link to lower attainment gains for certain groups of children, and specifically those from deprived backgrounds.

Whilst all schools studied claimed to believe in a child centred approach, there was variation in terms of the degree of child centred-ness – and the less child centred a class was, the less improvement there was to attainment. Believing in it was different to actually operationalising it. In schools with a more deprived intake, children were more likely to experience ‘didactic’ teaching, with closed instead of open questioning. There was less peer collaboration.  Interactions between teacher and children, and between children, were less likely to be characterised as ‘warm’, with more giving of instructions than praise and encouragement. The report notes that this kind of interaction would be more likely to form the backbone of a ‘traditional’, rather than ‘child-centred’ teaching approach.

There is an argument raging in the Twitter-sphere about the merits of ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching. Is it really the approach that makes the difference to children’s learning?  Or is it about the way we manage interactions within that approach?  How do we make sure our interactions with children are ‘warm’, that they encourage listening, talk and collaboration and that they extend thinking and vocabulary. This is what really enables high quality learning, and we saw it live in the classroom!

Find out how to extend children’s vocabulary at our next Journal Club, where we will be unpicking the excellent Closing The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley  – join the session for free!

Explore what quality talk looks like in the Early Years classroom on our new programme for Early Years Teaching Assistants.

Watch the video of the lesson described in this blog here.

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The new Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) guide to implementation makes sobering reading for those of us who have led change projects in schools. Its messages are clear and fly in the face of what is often expected by the DFE and school leaders. Implementation of any new practice requires a considerable build up, in order to create a school culture of trust and risk taking that is conducive to implementation, and in order to think through in detail the implementation proposal, both in terms of its content and its practicalities. Key to this is the notion that strict fidelity is not always possible, nor is it desirable. Teachers must make sense of the proposed change in the context of their own pupils and their own classrooms, so a ‘tight but loose’ approach is much more likely to achieve success

Once this ground work has been laid, school leaders should not simply assume that up front professional development will enable the change in practice to be adopted by all school staff: follow up coaching and mentoring will be required, for both individuals and teams, tailored to their needs and based on the implementation data school leaders are regularly gathering. Scaling up from an early small-scale implementation requires a completely new implementation plan. And in order for such implementation projects to be truly successful, school leaders should assume that two to four years will be needed.

Where the report is less helpful is in helping school leaders ensure that implementation is of the highest quality. Here, Hall’s paper on change processes is more helpful. His paper analyses the reasons why teachers do and don’t change their practice in line with leaders’ expectations. He identifies four types of responses to any proposed change in practice:

  1. The teacher makes no changes to their practice, as the new practice was already familiar and part of their usual teaching repertoire
  2. The teacher changes their practice in line with what was asked
  3. The teacher thinks they have made the desired change to their practice but when the school leader looks at it, the new practice is very far from what was desired
  4. The teacher deliberately does not make the desired change to their practice

Obviously responses 1 and 2 pose no problems at all for the school leader. With regards to response 3, Hall offers a specific tool that implementers can develop collaboratively with staff, called an Implementation Configuration.  This simple grid describes different stages the teacher’s practice might go through in order to reach the desired practice. Here is an example from an Implementation Configuration developed with teachers around pupil self- and peer-assessment:

The grid enables teachers to fully understand what the desired new practice looks like, to self-assess and to make plans for their own progress.  It can also support the work of middle and senior leaders who are coaching and mentoring colleagues to successfully implement the new practice.

And Viviane Robinson’s new book Reduce Change to Increase Improvement, a brilliant guide for school leaders wanting to successfully implement change, offers clear guidance to the school leader trying to tackle teacher response number 4. Leaders need to explore teachers’ ‘theory of action’: the beliefs that underpin their actions, and that have led them to resist implementation.  It is only by recognising and acknowledging these beliefs, that leaders can begin to support teachers to change their practices and make a difference to pupils’ learning. Here, trust is key: teachers must trust leaders enough to feel they can be honest about their feelings, and leaders must be prepared to really listen to teachers’ concerns, and take them seriously. Here again then, a supportive school culture makes a big difference to successful implementation.

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