Part 5- They facilitate situations for students to learn from each other

Kid Teaching KidsThe final part in the series “The Myth of the Great Teacher” is a natural follow on from my previous post on feedback.

It’s all about how the great teachers deliberately devise situations for students to learn from each other.

You don’t have to look far these days to hear or read about the 21st century learner, and how the whole concept of teaching and learning should now be ‘student centred’, as opposed to teacher centred, the approach that a lot of us current teachers experienced when we were at school.

I remember sitting in classes where it was consistently forbidden to speak to another class mate, regarding the task set or otherwise.  A great deal of my school memories are of teachers as ‘class managers’.  The strict teachers with minimal behaviour problems were seen to be the star performers.

Think of a security guard that talks a lot.

Noisy classes were problem classes.   Nobody really wondered what, in fact, the noise or the chatter was about.  Frankly, these ‘noisy’ classes were most likely disturbing some of the other teachers who were trying to catch a snooze or read the racing form in there period off!

The more I think of it, the more it becomes clear; keeping a class quiet or ‘compliant’ is far easier than facilitating quality, on-task group work, partner sharing or genuine collaborative learning.  Cue the more pain, more gain argument.

I prefer this term to cooperative learning as it suggests input and value is brought to the table by all parties.  To me cooperation in its simplest form often implies a basic standard of compliance, sort of working together rather than learning together.  I have never been a fan of aiming for basic standards.

So reflecting on my own school days, as well as my early career in teaching, I struggle to recall a particular instance where students wouldn’t rather work together on a task/ problem/ project or learning journey.  Having said this, I acknowledge that there are times when working independently is appropriate and totally justified.

Perhaps the desire to collaborate and connect is one of the great things to celebrate about the human race, in general we thrive on working with, learning from, and teaching/ helping other people.

On the very topic of learning together, Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain 2003 concluded that research into this;

“Is one of the greatest success stories in the history of educational research.”

So while some teachers may fear these collaborative learning situations as an opportunity for students to mess around, work off task or catch up on their weekend gossip, why is it that they are so powerful in enhancing the learning of students in the classrooms of great teachers?

Wiliam (2011) suggests that while it’s a matter of some debate, the evidence points to four main factors;

  1. Motivation.  In well-structured settings, the goals of collaborative learning are in each student’s best interests, so effort is increased.
  2. Social cohesion. Students help others because they care about ‘the group’ so again, effort is increased.
  3. Personalisation. Students learn more because their peers can engage with the particular difficulties a students is having, often using “student speak” as a clearer form of communication.
  4. Cognitive elaboration. Those who provide help in group settings are forced to think through ideas more clearly.

*The above is derived and modified from Dylan Wiliam’s, Embedded: Formative Assessment (2011)

So how, in fact, do great teachers plan for, deliver and evaluate these collaborative learning situations to really enhance the learning of their students.

Well the good news is, if you are a PE teacher, you are likely to be implementing these in a few natural settings possibly in your subconscious planning (as I like to call it).  Gymnastics in particular is a stand out for success in this area.  Sport Education is another if you are a supporter of that type of instruction/ unit.  And if you’re not, you should be. SEPEP via Basketball is my students’ favourite unit of the year, where engagement and learning goes through the gym roof.

When the great teachers facilitate collaborative learning they ensure two key things;

  1. Group goals are clear and established at the outset.
  2. Individuals are explicitly accountable for certain actions leading to the group goal.

The above assumes that a learning culture has been established which reflects, mutual respect, expectations of effort, standards of behaviour, quality of work etc. otherwise the learning may not get off the ground so to speak.

To offer practical suggestions on the how, here are three example of ways in which this may be achieved in a Physical Education setting.  As with everything posted on makingpefizz, these are simply ideas that I have used which have worked for me and my students. This is not to say that they will work for you, I encourage you to play around with them, make them yours.

Student Reporters

The basic principle of this is that student(s) conclude the lesson by summarising the learning intentions, success criteria, challenges, highlights and ultimately (possibly most importantly) what they learned in the lesson.  I use ipads and provide short reflection moments during the lesson, but pen and paper would work just as easily.  What they report on is really up to you, but they need to know at the start.

I’ve seen teachers implement this and they choose the student at the beginning.  I say, set it up at the beginning but don’t choose who does it until the end.  That way they have ALL done the thinking/ reflecting and only the selected student(s) actually report.  Others can always add/ challenge/ comment/ question, if time permits.

Teacher-Learner Partners

This is age old for PE teachers and is only possibly enhanced these days with the use of technology to analyse performance in the learner-teacher relationship.  Take a simple gymnastics scenario where success criteria (preferably that students have created with your guidance) are explicit on a white board, projector, flip chart, piece of paper. They film, observe, pause, rewind and provide their partner with “2 stars and a wish”.  That’s two things they liked about the performance and one thing they wish to see next time.  Clearly these roles are interchangeable and each student has the opportunity to be teacher/ learner.  Often the best ’teachers’ have emerged as a real surprise to me which are wonderful moments and provide me with great evidence of learning which can form part of that student’s assessment.

Sport Education

When well-structured and set up in the right way, sport education can be a real insight into the power of inquiry learning with students constantly collaborating.  I have found the key to this is to let the students ‘own it’.  It’s theirs and I have to constantly remind myself to stop meddling!

It’s a bit of work to set-up but then as it takes flight and the reigns are handed over to the kids.

I use our year 6 unit of Basketball for Sport Ed and it’s the classic example of group goals linked to individual accountability. The beginning of the unit sees the students outline the roles that are required to create a successful basketball tournament (we establish what a successful BB tournament looks like at this point).  Then, as a class, we create key indicators that the people in each role will be judged on, throughout and by the end.  The great about this is that if they rise to the challenge they will 1. Have a successful, well organised, fun tournament and 2. Will achieve great results in their assessment, which also just happens to be the actual indicators they have created.

I ask them to ‘apply’ for jobs via google drive, see the doc my current cohort of amazing grade 6s have created here.

There have been many spin off successes with this unit. We are currently in the midst of this as I write so I’d love to reflect on this Sport Ed unit and blog specifically about the experience when it concludes in a few weeks.

For this post, I simply wanted to share this as a more elaborate and substantial example of the power of peer to peer learning in Physical Education.

Final Thought

As I write about collaboration and learning from each other, I am reminded of the importance of not only providing this kind of  environment for our students to grow, but also providing ourselves as teachers with opportunities to learn from our peers.  This means in school and out, from PE and non PE.

I was saddened this week to hear of the passing of William Glasser, a great American, strong advocate for quality education and the Author of “The Quality School Teacher” (1992).  ‘Bill’ was way ahead of his time and as I reflected on one of his most famous quotes it appeared serendipitous in the week of my post on collaborative learning.  Here it is, as a tribute to a great man, a great thinker, and a great teacher;

“We Learn…

10% of what we read

20% of what we hear

30% of what we see

50% of what we see and hear

70% of what we discuss

80% of what we experience 

95% of what we teach others.

My friend Andy Vasily @andyvasily is someone I regard to be in the great teacher category. In all the discussions I have with him, I learn something new.  Andy has created a platform through which PE teachers can collaborate, question, reflect, grow, learn and become better at what we do.  I encourage you to check out the #peplc movement.

We may all be well advised to practice what we preach.


Part 4: They make feedback fizz


I don’t know about you, but I’ve been hearing, reading or reflecting on feedback for as long as I can remember.

If I cast my mind back it was actually part of my learning in my first certificated PE subject, “Standard Grade PE” which I sat in S4 (or year 10 for most).

John Hattie (2008), whose decades of research revealed that feedback was among the most powerful influences on student achievement, acknowledges that he has “struggled to understand the concept”

So if an expert struggles, what chance us humble teachers? Maybe I’ve been getting it wrong all this time!

Perhaps this from Wiggins (2012) can get us on track.

The term feedback is often used to describe all kinds of comments made after the fact, including advice, praise, and evaluation. But none of these are feedback, strictly speaking. Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.

Information about how we’re going as compared against a goal. Simple!

Formative assessment research tells us lots about the negative nature of teachers putting grades on papers and homework, in some cases its even suggested that this can lower student achievement and be detrimental to their progress- going backwards- yikes!

I remember one piece of feedback really clearly that I got on an English paper when I was 16 (1998. It said, “Ross, this is an excellent, interesting piece of work and shows real insight.  If you continue like this you could achieve an ‘A’ pass.”

It’s so interesting that I still remember this so clearly.  For the record, I wasn’t particularly good at English, good enough to get a Higher Grade (VCE) pass (with some effort) but not an ‘A’ student, well not that I thought anyway. Just another note of interest, the piece of work was on drugs in sport- perhaps I had some foresight into what the future would hold!

Interesting also to note that, the piece of work in question had no grade on it, just that comment for me to ponder.  Mrs Kirk, my English teacher, was a superstar teacher.

So if we accept that most (but not all) of the students ‘work’ we see is of a practical nature, movement, skills, fitness standards, games understandings etc. and not necessarily written down. How can feedback be used best to enhance our students learning?  How are the great PE teachers providing feedback?

Decades of education research support the idea that by teaching less and providing more feedback, we can produce greater learning (see Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Hattie, 2008; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001).

This struck me. Less Teaching, more feedback.

So, the great teachers are getting the kids engaged in lots of activity where they are learning, making decisions, problem solving, making mistakes, wondering, and questioning and are there as a sounding board to guide and facilitate their journey to the goal (whatever the goal is)

A little like the types of questions we ask (from my previous blog) it’s important to understand the types of feedback we give. There’s a lot of literature out there on this but as I see it they are;

  1. Ego inflating feedback
  2. Task related feedback
  3. Corrective feedback

PE teachers are renowned for offering loads of ego inflating feedback. It’s so easy to do. We see something, often from a distance, or something we’ve ‘taught’ and been waiting to see and we bellow out “Well done! Great Job! Good girl!” or the likes.

The problem with this is, while it may generate a smile and a good feeling within the student, they may not understand what it was that deserved the praise.

Evidence shows that praise can get in the way of students receiving feedback about the task and their performance (Skipper & Douglas, 2011). When a student hears, “Good girl! But you should ensure the base of your head stand is larger” she certainly hears the first part loud and clear—but this can be the end of the feedback message.

So if ego inflating feedback is often useless by itself and should not be mixed with corrective feedback as it may get lost, our delivery seems all important.

Small disclaimer from me here, the comments from Skipper and Douglas above, suggests that we teachers only have one agenda when giving feedback, to move learning forward.  While this is possibly true for the most part and maybe the most important reason for providing it, in my opinion it should not be our only agenda.

What’s wrong with providing the odd bit of ego inflating feedback to some of our students who need it most?  After all we are there to help them grow in many ways: their self-esteem, their courage and to provide a sense of belonging, not only in ability, knowledge and understanding.  So I say, keep this in mind. A wink, a nod or a simple ‘thumbs up’ could make a student’s day when offered at just the right time.

Task related feedback, while not directly enhancing learning, is so important in maintaining an efficient, safe class environment and also in ensuring expectations about behaviour remain clear.  I’ve watched great teachers use this type of feedback to wonderful effect and observed how there had been lots of prior learning about behaviour, movement around class, transitions between activities, etc.  I still use “well done to the Blue team” and “why am I saying well done to the blue team?” type of comments every day and they really work for reminding them you are waiting (impatiently) on something to happen and reinforcing a positive class culture.

If corrective feedback is the key to enhancing learning and we are giving more of this and teaching less, then how are great teachers delivering it?  I think the answer is: differently all the time.  I heard a great phrase that feedback should be more work for the receiver than the provider.  So like most things in learning it has to do one thing: cause thinking.  Perhaps a question?, perhaps groups are asked to think about why the basket was scored and provide feedback to the defence?, perhaps to say “That was brilliant…YOU tell me why? Combining two types of feedback in one hit with the key message hopefully not getting lost, as they’ve thought of it.

I hear a lot of people say, but how can I give feedback to all the students in my class? There are so many of them!  The fact is, in one lesson you probably can’t, certainly not quality stuff that has genuine follow up.  So we need to empower students as providers of feedback for each other.  As long as we have clearly established the learning intentions and success criteria, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t trust our students to give feedback and activate them as learning resources for each other, it may just get them thinking about their own performance as well.

Let me know your thoughts, how is feedback fizzing in your class?