Working With A Bottom Set Year 11: Round 2
By Adam Boxer
The emotional, physical and mental exhaustion of working with a bottom set year 11 class has its own characteristic flavour. You feel frustration at students who have switched off, annoyance at students who disturb others’ learning, fear for students who are working but not getting anywhere and, ultimately, inadequacy that you aren’t doing a good enough job.
You all know the kind of class I’m talking about, and we don’t need to go into minute and granular detail about its challenges and the characters that typically make it up. If you are going to have high expectations and standards for a class like this, you are certainly in for a challenge. I know from my own experience I’ve often felt like giving up or lowering my bar, and sadly sometimes those feelings have become reality.
I thought about having that sentence read “and sometimes I have let myself down by allowing those feelings to become reality,” but in truth I don’t know if I let myself down. It’s damn difficult trying to keep a brave face, calm demeanour and relentlessly high expectations. I reckon if anyone says that they’ve managed this the whole time they’re pulling a fast one. The perhaps unwarranted feeling of inadequacy lurks, but I think it’s important to be able to say to yourself “I’m doing all I can, and there’s a limit to what I can do.”
I wrote the above just over two years ago, in a blog about how I work with these classes and how I attempt to negotiate the turbulent mix of apathy, disaffection and academic struggles. I was a bit worried when I posted it, mostly because of the exhaustion I felt from classes like this as well as a sense of inadequacy; groups like this aren’t transformed overnight and it’s a long hard slog with incremental improvements rather than gigantic leaps. I didn’t want people to think that I had it nailed, that my lessons with groups like this were all sunshine, fairies and lollipops.
Either way, that post has garnered over 11000 hits, and a lot of people got in touch with me to tell me how grateful they were both that pedagogy with such groups was being discussed honestly and that it gave them some ideas. I’m always honoured and grateful to receive such feedback, but I have also learnt a lot since then, and whilst the pandemic has lent greater urgency to our teaching with such groups, Carousel has given me a powerful tool to better implement a robust retrieval routine with them.
To summarise my philosophy when it comes to teaching a group like this:
- ● The students’ knowledge and ability is tied to their motivation.
- ● If they feel like they don’t know anything and it is too difficult, they will give up.
- ● Building their knowledge carefully and deliberately will therefore hopefully help both with their ability and their motivation.
This rarely left a huge amount of time for new content. Now, I can set the fluency work as homework, allowing us to reduce the amount of time in class spent on retrieval and to advance into new material. It’s easier said than done though, and I’ve had to tweak and refine the process quite a bit, and still don’t have it perfect. Below is the outline of what I have done most recently:
1. Model, model, then model some more
I can’t monitor students when they work at home, so in order for them to work in exactly the way I want them to, I need to be hyper-specific about my expectations. To do this, I book out a bank of ChromeBooks for a lesson dedicated to modelling retrieval and Carousel.
I make sure I have a list of logins to everything we are going to use that day, namely their school account login and their login to the homework platform we use. I make sure that I also know how to access one additional source in case they don’t work (e.g. the school shared drive or their emails are unreachable) and have the link ready for them to access.
3. The Slow Practical
I utilise an approach that I borrow from science pedagogy, and make sure the whole class does small steps at a time, e.g.
Log on to your account, then turn your laptop around so I can see the screen
This does four things:
- ● Doesn’t give them too many instructions to follow
- ● Shows me that they are doing what I want them to do
- ● Gets their hands and eyes away from the screen when I need their attention
- ● Allows me to intersperse their activities with questions and reminders e.g. great, we’ve all now logged on to Carousel. Can someone tell me what the “revise” button does?..good. And the “take test” button?..great. And which should I do first?..yes, and why?…
4. Steady build up
As mentioned, for these students confidence is everything. If I set them work that is too hard, then they will not only give up in the short term, but they will also further slump into a long-term feeling of helplessness and lack of esteem. There are a number of ways I can bring down the challenge of a quiz, for example:
- Reducing the number of flashcards for students to learn
- Reducing the number of questions in the quiz
- Using “easier” questions
- Increasing the number of retakes available
I explicitly show students how to use the flashcards. I get a mini-whiteboard, and go through the flashcards one by one, writing my answers on the board. I do three at a time, then check my answers, and go back and do it again until I get them all correct. I then do the next three, then go back to the first three and so on. I think aloud the whole way through, explaining that the decisions I make aren’t easy ones (e.g. going over and over something until I get it) but they are the right ones.
The way you talk about retrieval and the students’ activity is crucial. They need to understand the purpose of what they are doing, both in terms of knowledge right here and now, and in terms of preparation for homework. I use phrases like:
- ● Well done for getting that one! I know you worked really hard on it
- ● I’m proud of you, you just got seven right in a row
- ● Doesn’t it feel good when you get this stuff right?
- ● Sure, it isn’t easy, but look how much you’re learning!
- ● Have you realised you’ve just sat and done this for half an hour straight? That’s really impressive!
- ● Come on, I know you know this one…
- ● I know you’ve got this…here let me give you a little hint…yeah that’s it. Now I’m going to come back in two minutes and you’re going to do it again but without my hint…
Make sure to get out there in and amongst the students. Talk to each one individually, ask them some questions from the flashcards. Be encouraging and supportive, but without being false. Don’t praise a student when they haven’t put any effort in. If students aren’t complying, point to others in the group and talk about how well they are doing and how proud of them you are, and how you aren’t going to give up on anyone.
7. Ensure there is enough
Set a number of quizzes, so that students who have finished the first one (and got an acceptable score — I normally expect 85%) have something to move onto. You don’t want any student to say that they are finished or have nothing to do.
8. Carry through into homework
This is the most important step. The work, effort and persistence they put in in class needs to carry over into their homework. They need to realise it is one continuum, and these are separate strands of the same thread.
The EEF’s Homework guidance says:
Homework that is linked to classroom work tends to be more effective. In particular, studies that included feedback on homework had higher impacts on learning.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Too often, students think of homework as entirely separate from classwork, something that teachers do because they have to, because it’s the policy or whatever. If they don’t see the two as deeply interwoven, homework engagement and performance will drop. Setting the continuation of the quizzes that students were working on in class as homework helps you in achieving this.
9. Follow up
Of course, homework will be much less effective if students can “get away” with not doing it, something I have written a lot about before. Make sure that you are holding students to account for their performance, both in terms of whether they have actually done it and in terms of whether they have done it well. You diagnose the former easily through the Carousel dashboard, and the latter through in-class quizzing and questioning.
If you click on the numbers in the “completed” column, Carousel will show you who has done the quiz.
I don’t do lessons like this often, but they are worth doing periodically (once a fortnight or once a few weeks). They can really serve as a massive boost to student confidence and knowledge, giving you the momentum you need to turn a short-term activity into a long-term habit.
As mentioned at the outset, it’s reasonable to say “there is a limit to what I can do” when it comes to a group like this. For me, Carousel has helped shift that limit. That isn’t to say this is an easy option. It isn’t — it’s hard work, but it’s worth it. And remember: these students, more than anyone, need you to do that work for them.
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