Dancing in perfect stillness — Rethinking the culture of interventions in schools

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I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
T.S. Eliot

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains that, in Buddhism, “suffering is caused by our own thoughts and behaviour. When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid off the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and intensify. Therefore the mind is always dissatisfied and restless.”

As he continues to examine Buddhism, Harari concludes that “if when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. Buddhism encourages followers to ask what am I experiencing, rather than what would I rather be experiencing. A person who doesn’t crave, doesn’t suffer.”

In schools we find the safety net of support and revisions sessions reassuring, even addictive. We crave interventions. It seems logical and intuitive that if we make students attend support sessions in English, they will do better in English. The same with Maths. And with Geography. And Physics. French. It goes on.

The questions are — putting aside for a moment the huge concerns about the students’ well-being, who, like us, feel intuitively that the way to improve in a subject is to do more of that subject times however many subjects they are struggling with —where do we stop? How many revision or support sessions are enough? Are there ever enough?

Gaining perspective

I fear the answer to that last question is a resounding no. The more revision sessions we put on, the more teachers and students rely on them. The problem is that once you start going down this road, subject after subject feel the need to schedule their own revision and support sessions, not primarily for the good of students, but just to just keep up with the joneses.

Students often feel that they need to attend as many revision and support sessions as possible, until all lunch breaks disappear and attending every available after school session means that school becomes an hour longer every single day, crowding out in the process opportunities for other educationally valuable co-curricular learning and activities. This is not sustainable, not just in terms of student well-being, but also because of its detrimental effect on increasing teacher workload.

Perhaps the solution, if there is one, is counter-intuitive. Since it is likely that a student who struggles in English will also find studying History a chore, or that a student who struggles in Maths might find Science more challenging, it may be more valuable to look at supporting students’ basic knowledge and skills across the subjects

Whereas we may usually assume that the best way for a student to do better in History may be to attend more History revision or support sessions, it may be that our fledgling historian finds remembering kings, queens and dates is no big deal but finds structuring her answers an obstacle to accessing the higher grades. Similarly, it may be that a physicist has no issue with the mathematical component of the Physics course, but struggles with reading and comprehension skills required to understand how to answer an exam question fully and thus correctly. Or it may be that a geographer enjoys and performs well in all aspects of Geography, except those that may rely on mathematical methods, such as statistics or interpreting graphs.

In all of these cases, the way to improve these students’ performance in History, Physics and Geography wasn’t to simply do more History, more Physics or more Geography, but rather to do more on essay writing, on reading and comprehension, and on graph interpreting and statistics.

Exploring alternatives

I am aware that skills, and not just knowledge, are highly subject specific and that therefore essay writing, reading and comprehension, and mathematical methods ought to have been learnt in context. The alternative that I propose below is mindful of this, but also takes into account the reality of teachers feeling the pressure to prioritise content delivery over competency in the subject specific skills that are essential to access the higher grades.

This year, at Hampshire Collegiate School, we are trialling an approach to exam interventions in Year 11 that focuses more on these essential skills and less on the traditional support or revision session. To be clear, we have not eliminated support and revision sessions altogether (they may be sometimes necessary) but we are working on readdressing the balance so that we can target our support more surgically to the specific areas of need.

To ascertain where the support was required, we sent out a survey to teachers of Year 11 classes asking them to identify specific areas of support for individual students. The survey returned some interesting results, below are five examples:

As you can see, most profiles identified one area where our support ought to be targeted, although some identified that no extra specific support was required (number 10) or indeed where a lot of support was required (number 19). This allowed us to put together a schedule of targeted support sessions aimed at helping individual students improve in those specific areas, as identified by their teachers. It also had the added benefit of highlighting to individual students (and their parents) where their focus and effort should be applied.

The direction of travel for us is to rely less on the traditional subject support / revision session and more on targeted interventions as described above. This might not be plain sailing and will require work and persuasion, as teachers are actually often resistant to letting go of the safety net, even though it only offers the illusion of safety.

As a result, we would like to see an increased and re-focused, co-curricular offer alongside a drastic reduction in support / revision sessions, allowing teachers more time to focus on the business of teaching — indeed more time available to plan lessons and feedback might eliminate much of the perceived need for support / revision sessions in the first place. We would also like to see a greater emphasis on the occasional essential skills workshop, where students, regardless of the subject they study, can hone the skills required to do well in a particular subject with the help of an expert instructor and with the aim to better apply and demonstrate their knowledge of that subject.

We’ll still be dancing. But perhaps it’s a kinder, slower, more thoughtful dance.

Your critique and comments are warmly welcome.

Further reading

This much I know about…how stopping Year 11 interventions will help protect our mental health and improve our well-being, by John Tomsett
Revision, assessment and the lies we tell, by Mark Enser
Metacognition and self-regulation, Education Endowment Foundation

Using technology in the classroom, by José Picardo is available now.

Order your copy here.

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2 Comments

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  1. This is an interesting reflection José. Having taught both Primary and Secondary, I wonder about the difference between the two, especially when it comes to intervention. My experiences have involved removing students from class to work on ‘core’ literacy and numeracy skills presumably not covered in class.

    I have yet to meet a teacher who is not happy for their student to be taken out for this form of intervention. However, what this ‘involvement’ means differs. One of the biggest problems I found when I taught it was everyone wants it to happen, but no one actually wanted to take any responsibility for making it meaningful. This meant there was not enough dialogue between the ‘core’ teachers and those responsible for the intervention.

    This had two consequences. Firstly, I ended up spending too much time gathering my own data and observations. Secondly, this independence often led to a culture of isolation, where what was done in intervention often stayed in intervention, with limited connection back to what was actually occurring in the classroom. The only benefit of this was that I was not relying on someone else’s idea and impression.

    What I learned during my time was that ‘intervention’ is always a choice. Although many schools run differing intervention programs, it does not necessarily have to be this way. For example, in Victoria the number of students in a class is not necessarily dictated by the teacher (i.e. 1 teacher = 27 students). Instead it is a complicated algorithm based on all of the teachers who ‘support students’. This includes specialists, intervention teachers and those in leadership. Schools therefore could choose to choose to scrap some of these programs to make smaller classes or as you have discussed, do it differently.

    I need to note, I offer only one fractured experience that has probably changed now. However, I am no longer in that sort of role, so would not know.

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