This session took place three weeks into the eight-week course. The learners are still getting to know each-other and coming round to the idea of learning again. Their ages range from mid-20s to mid-fifties although only three of the five attended the session which meant that the average age was late thirties.
The three male learners who attended are very unlike many of the previous groups of learners who attended this course, in a range of ways. One is that they are motivated and want to improve their literacy skills, and are willing to apply themselves to that goal both in class and at home.
One of the learners present is an established Level 1 literacy learner, who is working towards certification at that level, as he has no GCSE to evidence his ability to employers. Another is at a mid-Entry 2 working towards certification at Entry Level 3. He appears to have some form of learning difficulty and also has some disclosed physical disabilities. The third is an ESOL learner who presents a widely divergent range of abilities across speaking, reading, writing and listening. His listening skills are extremely well-developed, but his speaking skills are hesitant and far less developed. His reading abilities are far higher than his writing abilities. This appears to be a fairly classic set of issues arising among ESOL learners who have learned English only by going to work and not by undertaking formal learning.
Throughout the two years of this PGCE course I have struggled with the application of differentiation – this year I have taught far more mixed groups than last year – and they are working toward distinct levels of certification with established targets set-out by Agored Cymru. At best in the last six months of teaching on this scheme, I have overcome my fear of asking learners to complete tasks which are obviously or tangibly different from that of their neighbour. I had always resisted this in the past at the risk of embarrassing learners.
In this session I decided, after some specific feedback from the previous observation, to focus on differentiation when planning my session, by making specific notes to remind myself that even throughout group discussion (which occupies a majority of the morning session each week) it is important to carefully differentiate by asking questions of specific learners to the extent that they are challenges but does not undermine them. Two of the three learners require very specific modes of being engaged in conversation – one required additional time to form his thoughts, and this can be dealt with kindly and with encouragement – he is not usually unable to answer, but he cannot answer quickly. The ESOL learner often requires a re-wording of a question and again, lots of verbal encouragement and facial expressions which allow him to feel comfortable.
The Level 1 learner is hugely capable of analytical and creative thought, and is confident in group activities and discussions, but his spelling is extremely poor. He admits to this freely and is very willing to learn – even to try repeatedly, in front of the others, to spell-out an unknown word.
During the discussion with my tutor after the observed part of the session, we discussed the variation of abilities in the classroom and what approaches I use to differentiate learning. I admitted that having not worked with an ESOL learner before I am still assessing his needs and abilities, and how to respond to these. I particularly focus on homework tasks to form a large part of the required work for each learner, and to give tasks differentiated by ability. The learners are required to do approximately 2-3 hours of self-directed study away from class-time; these tasks frequently take the form of reading comprehension workbooks, with extension tasks (usually writing or grammar-focussed) for the Entry 3 and Level 1 learners. This is fortunate as most learners do complete the work, so I am able to rely on this for more tailored activities and for completing the number of hours of study required per week.
I am reading a very simple book which takes the mentally and practically challenging concept of differentiation and sets out a series of measures which can be readily used, planned and assessed, to increase variation in the classroom according to ability.
It confirms some of my fears and assumptions about not assigning some learners a “standard” task and then “different” ones for others, but appeals to readers to allow learners to work in pairs more (an ongoing target of mine) and to allow them to choose the small groups they work in, and to form a cycle throughout the day of whole-group and small-group work which allows certain learners to lead and to create and suggest, to conceptualise and enquire – all the while being assessed by the teacher by a varying set of standards or criteria. It refers to this as follows:
“The teacher thinks and plans in terms of “multiple avenues to learning” for varied needs, rather than in terms of “normal” and “different”. The goal for each student is maximum growth from his current “learning positions”. The goal of the teacher is coming to understand more and more about that learning position so that the learning matches learner need.”(2005, p15)
The author helpfully provides a pictorial representation of the cyclical concept of joining the whole-group and alternately freeing learners to work in pairs or small groups. This image has helped to shape my planning as more of a mental map than a series of stages. I have the flexibility in these sessions to remain focussed for longer than planned, on a particular feature of this “map” and to ensure all learners have developed understanding of a concept or have completed a certain learning task, before seeking to move onto the next stage of the journey/process.
The diagram below is not prescriptive but is a firm conceptual foundation which I believe promotes this feeling of motion and activity and natural flow which must be allowed for even more so when learners are returning to a classroom environment and will not be accustomed to rigid time-structures throughout their day. (2005, p6)
Stages 1-4 of this process were employed in the written plan for the observed session, and I would assert that for the most part they have been included in each of my observed sessions to-date. My next challenge will be to begin to plan more frequently for stages 5-8. I used presentations as an assessment method with a group of Level 1 learners several weeks ago and they completed the task enthusiastically and to a high standard. The nature of the learners on this course is consistently such that their confidence is often extremely low and they find the notion of a one-to-one mock job interview with myself a very daunting prospect. I had therefore not attempted stages 7 and 8 (above) previously as I had made assumptions about my learners and their willingness to take-part in such tasks as presenting facts or findings to the rest of their group. I saw the benefits of this type of activity, especially as it marked a summative assessment of the learning which had taken place across a 6.5 hour session and had been prepared for in gradual stages. I will certainly be using this type of task again in future, as it can incorporate the needs of a variety of learners and builds confidence across the whole group, regardless of ability.
I believe that this current cohort would benefit from such a task. They worked well together in this session and are clearly earning one another’s trust and are positive in their expectations of me and of the session. Since each are so willing to work hard to move on from their “learning position”, it will be helpful to give them pair/group projects throughout the day-long sessions and entrust them with presenting findings/creations/written work to each-other.