Glendowie School (5-014) - Creativity: the catalyst for boys’ writing Publications
Project Reference: Glendowie School (5-014) - Teachers at Glendowie School were concerned at the significant gap in writing achievement between boys and girls, with a considerable percentage of boys at or below expectation. The Continuum of Choice, developed by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, offered a research-based model for understanding what teachers and students need to do for students to take increasing ownership of their learning. Ultimately, the aim is for students to become ‘entrepreneurs’, driving and self-regulating their own development as writers.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) Kylie Dawson and Lesley Mitchell (Project Leads), Amber Peters, Emma Taylor, Tania Allan, Kim Andrews,Tom Pavletich, Shona Smith, Nadine Sorensen, and Ann Hatherley
Date Published: February 2019
The inquiry team adapted the Continuum of Choice to their own context and used it as the basis for understanding both student and teacher development and deciding upon next steps. The result was significant shifts in students’ enjoyment of writing, motivation to write independently, and belief in themselves as writers. Over time, this also led to significant improvements in the quality of their writing.
Even though we were at the start of a new term for our observation, it was really pleasing to see that the children were able to quickly get back into writing. There wasn’t a single child in the class who couldn’t think of something to write about. When I told them that they were choosing what to write about, they actually cheered! The whole class attitude towards writing is very positive, and that relates directly to choice in topic and genre in writing.
Teacher mid-year reflection
The teachers found that attitudinal shifts were a precursor to shifts in quality. They learned the importance of student choice and seeking and responding regularly to student voice. Being transparent with students as well as themselves was a late learning and the platform for continued development and growth.
The inquiry was led by Kylie Dawson and Lesley Mitchell. The inquiry team also included Amber Peters, Emma Taylor, Tania Allan, Kim Andrews and Tom Pavletich.
Shona Smith (CORE Education) was the project’s critical friend and Nadine Sorensen (Evaluation Associates) was its external expert. There was additional expert support from Ann Hatherley (CORE Education).
The inquiry story
This inquiry was undertaken in two cycles, over two years, with the second cycle of inquiry extended due to the Covid-19 lockdowns. In the first cycle of inquiry, it involved teachers and students in years 2 and 5. Membership of the inquiry team shifted with staffing changes from the first cycle to the second. Year 5 students were followed into Year 6, and some Year 2 students were followed into Year 3.
What was the focus?
This inquiry was a response to the considerable gap in writing achievement between girls and boys. Its focus was on boys whose achievement was below or at the national curriculum level. The teachers explored whether they could improve boys’ writing by empowering boys to use creativity as the vehicle to improve their inquiry and critical questioning, pursue novel ideas, and use an entrepreneurial eye to create and collaborate. The team established three goals:
- Boys taking greater agency for their own learning
- Boys gaining motivation, self-belief, and capacity as writers
- Boys seeing the relevance of creativity to enhance learning.
The inquiry team’s hunch was that achieving its goals would necessitate shifts from teacher-led practice to practice that is more student-driven. The teachers would need to support student agency by allowing students to design the task and choose the action. Teachers and boys would have a shared language around creativity which would lead to their being more independent in their choices about when, how, and what to write and the genre and style of their writing.
The team developed the following innovation statement:
We want to know whether becoming less teacher centred and providing boys with opportunities to become curious, creative, and knowledgeable around what success looks like will have an impact on the motivation, engagement, and self-efficacy, and writing quality for boys in years 2 and 5/6.
What did the teachers try?
Early in the inquiry, the team developed a draft theory of action that they could then refine as they reflected on their learning. (The final version is below, under “What did they learn?”)
The teachers’ initial hunch was that creativity might be the key, but they also recognised the importance of growing student agency. They explored the Continuum of Choice, a research-based model developed by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey. This describes students as moving from being participants in their learning to being co-designers, designers, advocates, and entrepreneurs. At one end, teaching and learning is teacher centred. At the other, it is learner driven.
The team tailored the original model to the needs and expectations of students and teachers at their school. They then used it to observe shifts in student competency from participant through to entrepreneur. At the respective teaching levels, members of the team made explicit what teachers would be doing at each of these levels and what would be seen in classrooms. These clear descriptions enabled the team to closely monitor their own teacher practice and their students’ development as confident, capable, and agentic writers.
When teachers came together, they shared ideas about how they could teach writing effectively in their classrooms. The information from the continuum enabled them to focus on specific changes required to help students move from one point on the continuum to the next. The examples listed below are some of the things teachers tried as they attempted to shift students from being designers to advocates:
- Use Makerspace and arts workshops as a stimulus for students to write in their own class choice of genre.
- Have students assess their own writing and report to the teacher on their next learning steps.
- Encourage students to choose someone in the room with similar goals with whom to work on their next step.
- Support students’ ability to choose writing topics by having a box of written prompts suggesting a range of topics that might suit different genres.
- Have the students develop a set of sentence starters or topics. Once a week, have the whole class choose one shared topic for writing.
- Have students be the ‘teacher for the day’ and plan what the class will write about.
- Change the classroom setting to include outside work. (For example, students made observational drawings and then wrote about what they saw.)
- Have group workshops on surface features target students and others have identified as needing attention.
What happened as a result of this innovation?
The team identified the following significant changes to their knowledge and practice:
- a more clearly articulated theory of action (see below)
- growing confidence in gathering and responding to student voice
- understanding the power and importance of student agency
- a growing understanding of what the Continuum of Choice means for teachers and students, both generally and in terms of their own context
- increasingly effective use of the Continuum of Choice, including in its use as a tool to support lesson observations and reflective professional conversations
- offering students much more choice in topic and genre
- a growing understanding that the choice of genre should be informed by the writer’s purpose
- recognition that shifts in attitude towards greater enjoyment of writing come before shifts in its quality
- growing understanding that when students care about their writing and are invested in it, they will be more motivated to address the surface issues that may be a barrier to readers.
Student interviews at the end of each cycle revealed that the boys who were its target became increasingly confident in themselves as writers. The teachers were surprised to find that even at the start, all the boys in Cycle 1 and most in Cycle 2 said they liked writing to some extent. Later interviews revealed an increasing sense of enjoyment and agency, as well as a greater desire to improve the quality of their writing. Amongst other things, the students’ comments signalled their appreciation of being offered choices and opportunities to collaborate with their peers (for example, through oral language activities).
Improvements were strongly evident in asTTLe data, but even more apparent when teachers analysed writing samples. The teachers believe that their students did better when given the choices of topic and the ability to match the genre to their topic. This not possible within the formal confines of asTTLe.
Data collection included practice analysis conversations, interviews with target students, and teacher reflections. This information was used to inform refinements and next steps for teachers, as well as students. One discovery was the realisation that the teachers had not been transparent enough with students about what they were trying to achieve. Therefore, towards the end of the inquiry, they created a new tool – a student-friendly version of the continuum. Their intention was to use this in the next part of their school’s work in understanding and sharing learner progress and next steps for learning and supporting students to take increasing control of their learning. Having tracked the progress of some Cycle 1 students into the next cycle, when they were with different teachers, another next step is to share their learning with their colleagues.
What did they learn?
By the end of the inquiry, the teachers had refined their initial theories of action. These refined versions, listed below, capture key elements of what the team understands to be necessary for boys to grow as writers. They encompass both relationships with learners and the design of learning experiences.
Year 2: How can we help boys become more confident, capable, and agentic as writers? Theory of action:
- If we know our students’ interests and passions, then we can create provocations and experiences based around these.
- If teachers have an understanding of the different ways they can use provocations and experiences to give learners voice and choice about topic, genre and purpose, then students will be motivated to write, take ownership, and care about its quality.
- If we grow capability in surface features through writing they care about, then students will see themselves as writers.
Year 6: How can we help boys become more confident, capable, and agentic as writers? Theory of action:
- If we build on the baseline data by gathering additional student voice, then we will understand more of students’ wants and needs about writing.
- If we give students voice and choice about topic, genre, and purpose, then they will be motivated to write.
- If we create authentic hands-on experiences, with a real audience and purpose for their writing, then students will take ownership and care about the quality.
- If we grow capability in surface features through writing they care about, then students will see themselves as writers.
Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2015). Continuum of choice: More than a menu of options. Make Learning Personal. http://kathleenmcclaskey.com/choice/
Bray, B. (2018). Opportunities for choice: The learning path to advocacy and innovation. Rethinking Learning. https://barbarabray.net/2018/05/08/continuum-of-choice-choosing-the-learning-path-to-find-passion-and-purpose/
Duke, N.K., Purcell-Gates, V., Hall, L.A., & Tower, C. (2006). Authentic literacy activities for developing comprehension and writing. The Reading Teacher, 60(4), 344–35. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237294221_Authentic_Literacy_Activities_for_Developing_Comprehension_and_Writing
Watkins, C. (2009). Learners in the driving seat. Teaching Times. https://www.teachingtimes.com/learners-in-the-driving-seat/
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