By Rob Webster – Researcher Associate, Institute of Education, London
In my previous post for TA Focus, I considered why the threat to cut TA jobs discussed in the media would be a bad move for schools and politicians. In this post, I want to reflect on the intrinsic value of TAs. I have the privilege of working an ever-growing number of schools that are involved in a ‘quiet revolution’. They are making small adjustments to TAs’ practice that have potentially far-reaching consequences for pupil learning.
Here, I draw on this work to explore some things you can do to sharpen your practice and maximise your contribution to the classroom.
1. Know your role
Teacher-TA liaison time before lessons is rare, so TAs often go into classes without knowing what will be taught, what tasks will be done or what the teacher expects from the pupils TAs support. TAs sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the teacher expects pupils to complete the work set and to complete it correctly. So learning can get bypassed in favour of ‘getting the job done’.
Good teachers make the role they want TAs to take in lessons explicit, and do not rely on TAs having to mind-read. Broadly speaking, TAs can only be as effective as teachers enable them to be. So they need to think carefully about TAs’ contribution to learning and communicate their intentions. Insist on knowing what the teacher expects from you at the start of the lesson. Ask her what skills or knowledge the pupils you support should be developing, and what learning she wants them to achieve by the end of the lesson.
2. Hold your nerve
Research has found that TAs’ interactions with pupils can be unintentionally unhelpful. Compared with teachers, TAs do more heavy prompting and spoon-feeding. Let me be clear: I do not blame TAs for this. As we know, unclear expectations have a part to play in this. But such interactions inadvertently get in the way of learning. Much of TAs’ behaviour is driven by a need to say something, when it might actually be better to leave space for pupils to think, talk and work. So how can TAs act differently in their talk with pupils?
Firstly, ensure pupils have enough time to process and think about their answers when you or the teacher asks them a question. Do not worry about the few awkward moments of silence. Secondly, avoid the temptation to give or lead pupils to the answer. In those moments of silence, TAs can feel the urge to end the pupil’s struggle. Instead, encourage them to draw on their ‘learning toolkit’ to help them help themselves (see below). Finally, know when to take a step back. Gradually fading out adult support creates opportunities for pupils to practise and grow their self-scaffolding skills.
3. Make what you say count
Interactions with pupils are at the heart of learning. For example, how we pose questions has a considerable bearing on how pupils develop as learners. TAs are privileged insofar as they get that ‘quality time’ with pupils that teachers have less of: working one-to-one and with small groups. So make it count.
One thing we have seen lots of schools do is train and encourage TAs to use more effective questioning. This includes asking more open-ended questions. There are plenty of resources on-line you can refer to give you some ideas: here is a good introductory video.
4. Knowing what to do when you don’t what to do
One potentially transformative style of questioning is what we call ‘knowing what to do when you don’t what to do’. Put simply, this means answering a question with another question. For example, if a pupil asks you how to spell ‘ceiling’, the most obviously helpful response is to spell it out letter by letter. But this squanders a valuable opportunity for learning. Alternative responses ensure the responsibly for learning remains with the pupil; for instance:
- “How can use your knowledge of phonics to help you spell it?”
- “Are there any spelling rules you know that might help?” (I before E, expect after C)
- “Is there a resource you can use to help you”? (a dictionary).
An overarching aim of education is to develop self-sufficient learners, comfortable with taking measured risks. Assisting pupils to handle challenges and uncertainty at the early stages of developing their stores of knowledge and skills is a vital part of achieving this aim for every pupil. Done well, this is something that TAs could contribute to enormously.
5. Extracting the learning juice
Whether we like it or not, a major part of learning is failure. David Beckham could not do this the first time he pulled on a pair of football boots; it took him years of practice, experimentation and learning from his mistakes. TAs often work with struggling pupils who develop a negative self-image of themself as a learner; those who think they are not as competent or successful as their peers. Some develop avoidance or dependence strategies: “Safer to wait for my TA to tell me the answer, than risk giving it a go and getting it wrong again”. But taking shortcuts on the learning journey cements dependency and ensures this notion of self is reinforced, not challenged.
There is no better way to show how messy the learning process is than by using your own experiences. Do not be afraid to show when you do not know the answer to a question or understand a concept or process. Use these moments as opportunities to show what good learners do by modelling the processes of finding out and experimenting with answers (e.g. what to do when you don’t what to do).
A colleague of mine talks about ‘extracting the learning juice’ from challenging situations. When pupils you support succeed at something tricky, be sure to spend a moment discussing what they have learned about learning. Get them to acknowledge when their persistence has paid off or how a piece of work grows as a result of drafting and redrafting.
To sum up, if effective interactions are at the heart of good learning, as the research tells us it is, then improving how TAs interact with pupils could add serious value to the classroom. Also, it is something schools, teachers and TAs themselves can begin to improve tomorrow at relatively low cost. Given the potential we could unleash, perhaps it is time to join the revolution?
About the author:
Rob Webster conducted research on the impact and deployment of TAs at the Institute of Education, London. He currently works as a consultant/trainer, using the research to help schools improve their use of TAs. He is co-author of two acclaimed books: Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants, and Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants. Prior to all this, Rob worked for six years as a TA.