How to support disengaged learners through a thinking skills programme
In 2010 our Year 4 cohort became an increasing concern for a variety of reasons. Most notably we had experienced a number of EAL boys entering the cohort during the course of Year 3, resulting in the already boy-heavy year group becoming significantly uneven in terms of gender. Furthermore, we were faced with an unusually high proportion of the boys having mild to moderate social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Unfortunately, these difficulties were aggravated due to the problems presented by the imbalance of boys and girls. To put it frankly, the boys were an audience for each other, and more often than not there was low-level disruption.
Issues to address
The first and most fundamental step in raising attainment would be to address the group's identified barriers to learning before core curriculum intervention could take place
We recognised that we had a core group of disengaged children who were the main cause of disruption to learning. They found it difficult to sustain concentration for even a short period of time, they were unable to cooperate with their peers in any form of activity, and they lacked problem solving and communication skills. Predictably, this had a hugely negative impact on their learning, culminating in them making very slow progress across all areas of the curriculum. Unsurprisingly, this disengagement not only affected their own progress but considerably hampered that of the rest of the class.
After numerous discussions with the Learning Support Service and the educational psychologist, it was agreed that the first and most fundamental step in raising attainment would be to address the group's identified barriers to learning; this would have to be done before any sort of intensive core curriculum intervention could take place. It was suggested that we try a thinking skills programme. We chose Let’s Think! from GL assessment, which includes fun activities with a focus on improving problem-solving skills, communication and cognitive development.
Each of the activities sets a ‘problem’ that requires the group to develop the ways in which they think, approach difficult learning situations and communicate, in order to search for a solution. The adult is merely there as a mediator to help progress the children’s thinking and thus giving them the responsibility to work together to reach an end result.
Developing a delivery and assessment plan
It was decided that the programme would be delivered twice a week, for 30 minutes, by our learning mentor. At the end of the first session, the learning mentor came to me to express concerns about how the group behaved and questioned whether they would be able to manage such an interactive intervention. As you watch the video below, you will no doubt share his concerns!
Measuring impact through video evidence
In order to measure impact, and learn whether the programme was worthwhile, we carefully considered the best way to assess the outcomes. We decided that the most effective way to do this would be to visually record the group working on one of the tasks at the beginning of the programme, and then present them with the same task at the end of the programme. We could then compare the ‘before’ and ‘after’ evidence to see if there was any marked difference in the target areas.
The first part of the video below shows the group working on the benchmark challenge at the beginning of the intervention. The challenge was explained to them, the aim of it being that each row and each column on a grid must have each colour in it, and then they were left to try to sort out their task and organise themselves.
The children behaved in much the same way as they did within the classroom – shouting out, making silly noises, talking to themselves, distracting each other and quickly losing interest in the given task. As you can see, they lacked any form of logical thinking, were unable to communicate or listen to one another, and showed an inability to persevere without adult support. In fact, after only five minutes the group became disengaged in completing the challenge, and they quickly gave up finding a solution. At this point, the learning mentor had to intervene to manage their behaviour and we both wondered what kind of impact this programme would really have – it’s fair to say we weren’t hopeful!
The turning point
Gradually they started to develop skills in listening, communication and perseverance which allowed them to begin to formulate an approach to solving the problem
As the group found it very difficult to complete a challenge without considerable adult support and mediation, there were many occasions when the same activity would run over two or three sessions until they finally reached a solution. However, gradually they started to develop skills in listening, communication and perseverance which allowed them to begin to formulate an approach to solving the problem.
This major breakthrough gave the group confidence and a sense of achievement. As a direct consequence of this, their concentration lengthened and they were able to focus on what they were doing for a much greater length of time. It became noticeable that with the development of these skills the negative behaviours considerably reduced. The audiovisual evidence clearly demonstrates much less inappropriate communication with virtually no disruptive or distracting actions.
As the programme went on, the group started to apply the newly-learned skills when approaching each challenge and the adult mediation lessened. They began to adopt a new ‘can do’ attitude to learning, and this became the key to overcoming their barriers.
Programme completion and evaluation
On completion of the programme the impact was apparent – and we had the evidence to prove it. The videos we recorded demonstrated that when the benchmark challenge was presented for the second time at the end of the intervention, the group were able to find a solution to the problem. We saw improved communication, developed concentration and perseverance. The video also shows one child asking for clarification from the adult filming, which is a breakthrough in terms of independence and learning, as prior to undertaking the programme the child would have just given up and become disruptive.
Their teacher felt that the group were re-engaged back into learning through their ability to employ the newly learned strategies to help them overcome areas of challenge
Although one of the boys was absent on the final day of filming, this had no bearing on the group’s performance. The positive effect of them taking part in the programme had been recognised by the class teacher, who reported that he had seen a considerable difference in their behaviour, motivation and approach to completing given tasks. He felt that the group were re-engaged back into learning through their ability to employ the newly learned strategies to help them overcome areas of challenge. In doing this, disruption was significantly reduced and the classroom was a calmer, more focused environment where all the children were able to fully engage in learning.
We saw such benefits from this programme that it now appears annually on our provision map. There are many ways that schools can implement such a programme, from using it as method to developing thinking with Year 1, to breaking down learning barriers with vulnerable children. We have found it very easy to use, hugely adaptable and, most importantly, great value for money as the resources can be used over and over again.