Action Research: Can You ‘Grow’ Independence?

Throughout this year, our school’s professional development focus has been to develop a growth mindset within our students.b1bsxmbceaa-yih

We began in September by embarrassing ourselves in our faculties by taking a survey to determine if we had a growth mindset. We quickly discovered that Sophie has a growth mindset, whilst Katie’s is questionable! This changed our perceptions of what a growth mindset is and how it differs between people. We continued to further our knowledge through mixed development time sessions and INSET days lead by our school’s Lead Teachers and Development Coordinators. This allowed us to share experiences and best practice to enable us to integrate growth mindset into our teaching.

In our NQT sessions we were all asked to focus on an area of growth mindset for our Action Enquiry projects. We (Katie and Sophie) both wanted to focus our research on improving independence but had very different issues and approaches.  Sophie’s Enquiry was based around her year 10 English class (with a specific focus on two students) and improving independence from the start of the lesson by trialling various different starter tasks. Katie’s was based on improving independence in KS3 Textiles lessons during practical tasks by giving students a method of recording their progress

 

Sophie’s Enquiry

My Question:

Can independence be improved by altering the way students start the lesson?

My Action Enquiry was focused on my mixed ability year 10 English class. As GCSE students they should now have developed most of the skills needed to attempt a starter task independently (and most of them have) but I was finding that a number of my students had a very ‘fixed’ mindset, which was affecting their confidence and engagement from the very start of the lesson.

What does independent learning look like at KS4?

  • Students are motivated to learn without prompting
  • Students choose when to use resources and when to continue “to struggle”
  • Students can carry out research around a subject
  • Students can identify targets that will help them improve.
  • Students can use an exam board mark scheme to work out where they have gone wrong/ can improve
  • Students know when to ask the teacher for help
  • Students ask questions that help their understanding
  • Students are happy to improve quality instead of quantity
  • Students can use a checklist to ensure they have completed a task thoroughly
  • Students can use previous learning to help them tackle a longer task without guidance on individual steps

These are some of the outcomes I wanted to see during my starter activities with the hope that students would continue to learn in this way throughout the lesson. I decided to concentrate on two students from this class who struggle with all the points above as I hoped it would benefit them the most.

My Baseline:

Student A: Female student with Dyslexia, struggles with English and started the year with a very negative attitude towards the subject because of this. Is often late to lesson, easily distracted, rarely completes homework. She responds well to lots of positive feedback and encouragement. She does have some curiosity in the subject and will ask lots of questions and engage in discussions but she will very quickly give up on independent reading and writing tasks especially if I (or another student) am not there to give her 1:1 support.

Student B: Male student who is generally quite positive but does not take pride in his work. He rarely has a pen when he comes to lesson and does not engage in class discussion or activities. He avoids challenging tasks by rushing his work without giving it much thought or reflection. He complains about the amount of work and often says he doesn’t understand. He will often distract other students to avoid learning and when working in a group, he will take the ‘back seat’ and let others do all the hard work.

Before testing some specific starter tasks I had to collect some baseline data so I tested three types of starter tasks that I use regularly and timed both students to see how long it took them to start the task and how they managed with the work itself. I also recorded any questions they asked or comments they made.

Starter Task 1 – Spidergram

For this starter, students had to note down the characteristics of Mr Utterson from the novel ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. We had spent the previous 2 lessons analysing his character through key quotations so while students still had to think, it wasn’t a particularly challenging task.

Student A took 5 minutes to start the task and I had to prompt her twice. She seemed engaged in the task because she asked me “Is Utterson the one who is grumpy?” I gave her some feedback and in the end she managed to write 3 things about his character.

Student B took 7 minutes to start and I had to prompt him three times. He did not seem engaged. He was asking other students for answers and in the end only wrote one point down.

Starter Task 2 – Response to stimulus (picture, question, quotation, statement)

In this starter activity, students were given an image of Victorian London and asked to label the image with adjectives to describe the mood/atmosphere. They then had to match a quote from the novel to relevant mood, which made the task more challenging.

Student A engaged with the task straight away by calling out adjectives such as “scary” but she didn’t write her ideas down independently (she waited for feedback) or match any quotes to her adjectives. We spent 10 minutes on the task as a class.

Student B took 5 minutes to start the task and only completed the first part of the task with 2 or 3 labels. I prompted him to match at least one quotation but he didn’t.

Starter Task 3 – Terminology revision (definition matching)

This was a very common activity that required students to revise some language and structural devices by matching the terms to the correct definitions.

Student A took 3 minutes to start the task but quickly gave up. She made comments like “I don’t know what these are” and  “we’ve never learnt this before” she spent the rest of the time talking to other students and copied a few of their answers.

Student B took 5 minutes to start the task and also made negative comments like “this is so long” and “this is too hard” he did however know a few of the answers, which he matched up correctly and seemed pleased when I praised him.

What I changed and the outcomes:

With this baseline in mind, I decided to try 3 new starter tasks that I don’t normally use. They are also tasks that have been recommended/created by other members of staff to improve independence so I wanted to try them. Like before, I tested three types of starter tasks and timed both students to see how long it took them to start the task and how they managed with the work itself. I also recorded any questions they asked or comments they made.

Starter Task 1 – Less Teacher Talk

One thing we have discussed as a school about promoting independence is for teachers to try not to ‘spoon feed’. Students who have a fixed mindset know that eventually their teachers will tell them the correct answers so they often wait for this information to be given to them before trying on their own. This was definitely true for both of my case study students so I designed a very simple task that required students to use some resources to answer 3 questions about the characters from Jekyll and Hyde. The resources were quotes from the novel, a success criteria and some sentence starters. The task didn’t need much explaining so I simply told students to use the resources you have been given to answer the 3 questions on the board. I then put a 10 minute timer on the board so they know how long they had to complete the task and sat at my desk. I didn’t answer any questions or, for the purpose of this research, give any prompts.

Student A clearly felt very uncomfortable with this task because she kept asking me questions, which I refused to answer. This is caused her to become quite frustrated and she actually refused to attempt to the task because I wouldn’t help her.

Student B took 3 minutes to start the task. He spent about another 3 minutes reading the resources but did not attempt to answer the questions

Other students did respond well to the task because it was new and different but I realised that a lot of them felt uncomfortable with my refusal to help. On reflection I think this is the kind of task that students need some practise with and maybe the expectations need to be clearer. However, it did make me realise just how much students rely on us as teachers to ‘spoon feed’ and support them and that if you take this away it needs to be done gradually and frequently in order for it to work. Subsequently, I have tried this task again with the same class and they were much more comfortable with it the second time around.

Starter Task 2 – Low Stakes Testing

The idea of low stakes testing was introduced to us by our development coordinators during our faculty meetings. The idea is that if we can introduce short revision tasks and tests into our lessons without the pressure of having it marked or graded, students will be more motivated and willing to attempt the task independently. I gave my students a worksheet on which the students had to match the main plot events from Macbeth to the corresponding scene from the play. I introduced the task as a ‘quick quiz’ but said that it had to be completed independently, like a test. I gave students 5 minutes.

Student A took 1 minute to start the task and seemed engaged. She did not give up on the task and worked on it for the full 5 minutes. At the end of the task she seemed pleased that she had tried but she did make comments such as “I still don’t understand this book” and “I just guessed most of them”. I told her that I was happy she had guessed and not given up on the task as it showed resilience.

Student B also only took 1 minute to start the task. He, however only spent about 2 minutes on the task and the said “I don’t know the rest”. I gave him some encouragement and he made a guess for the rest of the work. Although he seemed less engaged than Student A, he still persevered and completed the task. He was eager to find out the answers at the end too, which showed that he took some pride in his work.

I have been using low stakes tests regularly with this class because I do think they teach students important revision skills and I am still seeing positive outcomes in terms of independence. However, I don’t believe that these outcomes are concrete enough to say that low stakes tests will have a lasting effect on helping students develop a growth mindset. In the case of my students, I believe they enjoy the novelty of the task (having a worksheet with a fairly low-challenge, low-pressure task to complete) and tend not to put a lot of thought into their answers.

Starter Task 3 – Incentive tasks

For this task, students had to answer questions/complete activities in order to receive points. The activities were stepped in difficulty in order to offer some challenge when trying to gain points. The expectation was for all students to get 5 points and there was a reward for students who got 10 or more points. The idea was that students would be motivated to work independently in order to receive a reward.  This starter took 15 minutes, which is arguably too long to spend on a starter, but students needed the time to complete tasks and I found that most were engaged and motivated by the incentive of a lollipop so I allowed this task to dominate the start of the lesson.

Student A did not seem motivated by the incentive at all. She took 7 minutes to start and was actually sent out of the lesson because she avoided work by being disruptive and ignoring my instructions. She completed one of the tasks and gained 2 points.

Student B did not seem motivated by the incentive of the lollipop but did want to achieve the minimum expectation so took his time getting started (about 5 minutes) and had to be prompted numerous times. He spent 5 minutes working on the tasks and then called out “I’ve finished, I’ve got 5 points!” I checked his work and was not happy that all his answers were rushed so I got him to spend the remaining 5 minutes turning some of his answers into full sentences/correcting his work.

On reflection, I realised that students with a growth mindset responded well to this task because they have the confidence in themselves to aim for the lollipop. Whereas my case study students were threatened by the incentive of the lollipop – in their minds, they thought they would never be able to achieve that many points and were happy to settle for second best.

What I discovered:

All lessons should have a starter activity. The purpose of the starter is to get pupils fully engaged in the learning process as soon as possible, and to create a sense of pace and motivation within the lesson. In my lessons I see the starter task as a ‘hook’ to grab students’ attention and curiosity and subsequently engage them in the learning. It is for this reason that I decided to focus on starter tasks because I believe that if independence can be encouraged from the very start of the lesson, students are more likely to continue in this vein as they move onto the more challenging and deeper learning of the lesson.

The highlighted words in the above paragraph are all associated with a growth mindset and were outcomes I was hoping to find from trying some new starter activities. If I evaluate the outcomes of the class as a whole, I would say that the starter tasks I used did improve independence and they are tasks that I will continue to use but for my case study students, more intervention is needed in order to improve their confidence and motivation. The results I obtained did not show a clear improvement but they did introduce my students and myself to a variety of possibilities and a better understanding of what independent learning looks like.

I learnt more about what a fixed mindset is and what it must feel like for students, which allowed me to evaluate my teaching. This process helped me to realise that I need to make students feel more familiar with independent tasks in order for them to work. They need to feel comfortable with struggling and taking risks, which these kinds of starter tasks will do if they are used regularly.

 

Katie’s Enquiry

My Starting Point:

When we were told that the focus of our enquiry was to use growth mind set principles to improve resilience in our students the first thing that sprung into my mind was my year 7 textiles students. We operate on a carousel in KS3 and I have classes for roughly 10-14 weeks depending on the length of the term. During this time we complete a project researching, designing and then making an environmentally friendly bag. Of this, approximately 5-8 lessons are spent making the bag itself.

When completing practical work students were very needy and demanding- often working but making incredibly slow progress, constantly asking both myself and my technician for help rather than using the resources available to them. In addition to this, there appeared to be a culture of fear amongst the students were doing nothing was preferable to getting something wrong. I had tried various different methods of intervention to improve the speed of their progress but my methods only seemed to be working for small groups of students and I needed a whole class approach.

I started off by identifying the point in my lessons where it seemed to go wrong. It seemed very clear that whilst the start of the practical task was the main fault there was also a lack of a clear and definitive ending– often they would tidy up in dribs and drabs and be at different stages – with half the class sat down waiting, making a start on the plenary and the other half still frantically trying to finish their work!.

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Some of my ignored resources!

 

Method 1 – Hands up!

As the biggest issue I had was students being unsure of their starting point, causing them to waste time asking for help (or worse trying to ‘look busy!’) this was the problem I wanted to address first.

I started by asking for hands up feedback, during which the starter of each lesson was to ask  the pupils to look at their work, work out  which numbered step they were up to and to then raise their hand when I called the steps out. Initially in the first few lessons this worked really well and was very smooth, enabling me to target specific students for intervention. However after 3 or 4 lessons once the gap between pupils widened due to speed/absence they became more reluctant to reveal what point they were up to to the class.  I also had some pupils become upset in realising they were so far behind their classmates.  I quickly realised this system, although quick and efficient when it worked was not consistently effective in  achieving its purpose and decided to try something else.

 

Method 2 – Trackers

Having tried the hands up method, I realised the simplest way of resolving the issues  was to remove the public element and ask students to keep a note of the step they finished on so they could simply start where they left off the next lesson rather than trying to work it out.

Having discussed this idea at an NQT meeting it was pointed out to me that I could add in regular opportunities for them to reflect on their progress in addition to tracking their work to further increase their use of the growth mindset principles.

Initially when presented with the sheet they generally were slow to start and moaned about having to fill it in at the beginning of the lesson. However, at the end of the lesson I instructed students to pack away and then complete their tracker, showing it to me before putting their folder in the box. This gave the end of my lessons a real feeling of calm that wasn’t previously there and gave me an opportunity to discuss progress individually with them. Having returned from half term they were used to the routine and carried on without even needing prompting.

This was hugely beneficial as students were able to start from where they had left off without any confusion and would work independently through the steps before they got stuck rather than starting off the task asking me for help. This also appeared to increase their resilience – because their progress was a private matter they seemed less afraid to make mistakes, and if anything became more willing to unpick any sloppy stitching to redo more neatly – a revelation!  

Another surprising impact the tracker had was increasing pupils motivation – when I first introduced it I was actually being formally observed and said to the class ‘I’m going to show you these six steps, where you set your target to get up to is up to you’. My observer quickly pointed out this maybe wasn’t the best approach! After that I began to give them a certain number of steps to achieve of their target ( i.e ‘ I want you to set your target as moving 3 steps if you’re a little unsure, 4 steps if you’re happy and 5 steps if you’re raring to go!’) and began to see a huge shift as pupils had set their own targets and desperately wanted to meet them.  Some previously very reluctant students began to come up to me at the end of the lesson with big smiles showing how they’d exceeded their target and began to show real pride in their achievements.tracker

What I Discovered –

Overall, although the written tracker was successful in reaching my aims (mainly preserving my own sanity!) the system is far from perfect and could use some tweaking before I use it again in September. Whilst I did encounter some resistance in the beginning this subsided after half term and was non-existent on  the second rotation – making it obvious that very clear and consistent routines are also important in creating an environment that fosters independence. I also want to trial other methods, such as silent demonstrations to develop this further. However, the written tracker was hugely beneficial to both the students and myself and I really found that it changed the atmosphere in my classroom as pupils were able to get on their work and I could focus on those that actually need my help rather than those who just need pointing in the right direction. I still have students bouncing up to me at breaktime telling me they’re going to smash their step target next lesson!

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, when we compared our results we found many parallels as well as many differences. We both experienced some kind of resistance/frustration from the students we were working because they were not used to the strategies we were using and found it difficult to try and adopt a growth mindset. However, we both believe that if this kind of learning becomes more regular and routine for students they will start to feel more and more comfortable with learning in this way and hopefully be more willing to take risks. In that sense we feel that both of our Enquiries reached a positive conclusion. As we were discussing our research, one interesting realisation was that Sophie felt that her starter tasks were most successful at improving independence when the activity was new and novel for her students as they were more likely to engage with the task. Upon discussing this, we realised that the idea of ‘novelty’ could apply to both of us as Katie only teaches her classes for 10-14 week rotations, whereas Sophie has them for a full 2 years. We believe that this significant difference in time could have an impact on our students’ independence and engagement. Overall, while both of our Enquiries saw some success they both require further development or investigation.