My Classroom Experiment: Part 1

If you follow me on Twitter, you will have seen that I recently encouraged people to (re)watch The Classroom Experiment by Dylan Wiliam – it’s a two-part documentary that follows renowned education researcher Wiliam as he guides a group of teachers in implementing a number of his formative assessment strategies. It’s a really engaging documentary, providing much needed insight into what happens in the classroom, and how these simple strategies can improve student engagement and learning outcomes. I don’t go into much more detail about Dylan’s experienced, I’ll trust you’ll go and watch it if you haven’t already. The purpose of this post is to document my own classroom experiment – implementing a numbe of Wiliam’s strategies with my three English classes, to see how they work with students in an academic selective school.

Yesterday was the first day back with students after our 6 week summer break. I have three English classes – year 12 Advanced English, year 11 Advanced English and year 10 English. I have taught my year 12 class for the last 12 months, but my year 11 and 10 classes are new to me. Yesterday I had both year 11 and year 12 – year 10 only return today. I’m really keen to try out some of Wiliam’s strategy’s for a few key reasons:

1. I’ve discovered that the students at my school are very dependent on their teacher, and can often be quite passive in class. I want to challenge students to contribute more thoughtfully, and frequently, to classroom discussions.

2. Both of my senior classes are lower stream classes, that basically means I’ve got the Maths/Science geniuses who haven’t yet discovered their passion for English… and this is reflected in their results. According to Wiliam, these strategies will improve learning because they improve engagement – that’s the outcome I’m after!

3. One of our focuses for professional learning in 2016 is formative assessment, and we’ll be using Wiliam’s work as our main source. I want to be able to model the use of formative assessment for my peers, and be able to reflect on actual classroom experiences at our school, rather than just saying ‘do this’.

So, the first strategy I’m trying out? NO HANDS UP! OK, I’ll be honest, for me this strategy should be called NO CALLING OUT because I’ve never bothered with requesting silence and hands up, so my class is usually pretty noisy with kids shouting out answers to questions. To replace hands up/calling out, I’m using students’ names on PaddlePop sticks (these are called craft sticks or lolly sticks in other countries) – basically I have a stick for every student, and I hold them in my hand when I’m talking to the class as a whole. If I want to ask a question to clarify understanding, then I pull out a stick at random and ask that student the question. Easy.

So how did it go? Surprisingly well! For starters it was fun writing names on coloured sticks, haha, and then it was fun telling the kids about it and seeing their curiosity. I found that holding all of the sticks in my hand was a bit annoying, so I’ll probably put them in some sort of container today. Below is a super quick overview of my observations for each class.

Year 11: My first lesson with this class was all about getting to know each other. One activity I used for this was a PMI about students’ thoughts on subject English. Each student had a piece of A3 paper, and divided it into a three columns – positive, minus, interesting. They then spent 10 minutes quietly adding their honest thoughts about English. Once this was done, I used the sticks to call on students to share one thing on their list, and briefly explain why they put it in the column they did. Next I called on a second student to say which column they would put that thing and why. We did this for about 15 minutes, and students responded well. There wasn’t a single student who refused to participate, and all students were paying attention to what their peers had to say and were able to add to it when called upon. Students did find it funny when the sand person’s name came up a few times – that’s probability for you! Obviously this wasn’t necessarily an example of formative assessment, really, more like using them for managing discussion BUT it did improve engagement.

Year 12: This lesson I introduced our new module – Critical Study of Text. We were doing a pretty mundane task, reading through the syllabus rubric for the course. To introduce the activity I made sure all students had highlighters and a pen, and spoke about the importance of annotating what they highlight. Then I introduced the sticks – once again students were curious, and a little amused (pretty sure they’ve not seen anything like that done in a senior class before!). As I read through the rubric, I stopped frequently and selected students (using the sticks) to give their personal definition of key words, or phrases, or to get them to explain why they thought a particular aspect of the rubric was important. Once again I dropped sticks on the floor, which the students found amusing, and some students names came up a few times which they also found amusing. I noticed that some students who normally would never contribute to class discussions were made to participate and this was noted by other students. The sticks meant that students who might often be distracted by their laptops etc, were paying more attention. I also noticed that the students who always contributed became frustrated when others who were called on didn’t know an answer… and they found it hard to keep quiet! It was fun watching students shush each other, and refer to the sticks and no ‘hands up’ (which students started to do even though they never used to, lol!). If a students couldn’t give an answer, or I felt the answer needed more development, I would call on a second student to help – often I would pull out two sticks in anticipation of this. I found this to be a really effective way to introduce a new module, as students were instructed to take notes from what their peers say, on their printed rubric. This certainly was not me working hard, the kids were – winning!

So that’s it! It’s now Friday, and I’m going to use the sticks again today… hope they’re awesome today too!


4 thoughts on “My Classroom Experiment: Part 1

  1. I was wondering why this worked so well for you on the first try, when the teachers in the doco all had real teething problems with the method! I suspect it’s because you started using the sticks at the outset of the year, where students were doing activities that they could easily contribute answers from. Like, no-one is going to be caught with nothing to say about their own PMI notes! I think this is wise – starting the stick engagement method with low-stakes activities. A good way to get students into it 🙂

    • Hey! I saw that question on Facebook, and had planned to respond to it in this post and then forgot! I think there’s a couple of reasons – first, like you said, it is the beginning of the year so maybe students haven’t got into any routine around hands-up or calling out. However, I have been teaching my year 12 class for a year, so they can’t really be called ‘new’… so maybe with them it’s just my teaching style has never been to ask questions that might seem threatening if you don’t know the answer? I guess it could be an English teacher thing? Like we ask questions that aren’t closed, so students are less likely to seem ‘wrong’?

  2. Hi Bianca,
    Thanks for the share. Interesting read! I like the considered attempt to increase engagement and promote thinking with the intended outcome being increased learning gain for students. I look forward to reading about how it all unfolds.
    P.S. Have you considered using Periscope/Skype/Hangout etc. and asking Dylan to view from afar? I mam not sure of the protocols required, but it may be worth considering

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