Junior School Head of Academic Development, Stephen Honey, explains the significant role our Assistant Teachers have in nurturing personalised learning and supporting student feedback.
Raising student achievement underlies everything we do, and at Dulwich College (Singapore) our students come first. A key role for educators, as Southwick (2012) notes, is to find the right balance between protecting the child and pushing them beyond their current level of academic ability. Assessment for learning is a key driver in raising student achievement and as Dylan William (2011) declares, providing quality feedback that moves learners forward is one of the most significant strategies to get there. In the Junior School at Dulwich College (Singapore), excellent Assistant Teachers (ATs) collaborate as an extension of great teachers to help us achieve this goal. We are fortunate to have a highly skilled team of ATs and their potential to support personalised learning, the formative assessment process and academic mastery is being realised. The Education Endowment Foundation (2018) published a guidance report for school leaders highlighting that Teaching Assistants should add value to what teachers do and the needs of all students should be addressed through high quality teaching. Alongside this, a key message coming from the Dulwich College International education team and their Worldwise education philosophy (2019) is that it is important that we shift the focus of assessment to make sure there is a balance between improvement and attainment by optimising high quality learning and not over-emphasising high stakes assessment outcomes. This article will examine the important role that our ATs must play to ensure we fully support our students with personalised learning and high quality feedback.
Assistant Teachers - An extension of the teacher
Research from the Education Endowment Foundation (2015) shows that ATs can provide noticeable improvements to student attainment when they work well alongside teachers in providing excellent complementary learning support. Crucially, ATs should add value to what teachers do, not replace them. In the Junior School, our ATs model consistency with the class teacher they are supporting. Ultimate responsibility for the students lies with the class teacher, but an effective partnership between the teacher and AT ensures that both members of staff collaborate together to observe students, track their progress, and reflect and plan for next steps to support student learning. In conjunction with Eva Cartwright, an education consultant from the TA College, we have created a shared vision for the role of our ATs. Our ATs should not be present purely as an extra pair of hands in the classroom or for administrative support. Our ATs are busy supporting learning conversations with the students in their care and they act as an extension of the teacher in order to ensure they are contributing to the teaching and learning.
In the Junior School, we value the need for quality feedback to personalise learning and enable teachers and students to identify and work on next steps and misconceptions. We also do our best to ensure our ATs are as well-equipped as possible to support our students in this process. This attitude is supported by the Education Endowment Foundation (2015) who highlight the importance of ATs being fully prepared for their role in the classroom. We offer appropriate development training and do our best to ensure time for teachers and ATs to meet in order to enable the necessary lesson preparation and feedback. As Webster et al (2016) highlight, making best use of the extra adult support in the classroom requires teachers to think carefully about how they build them into their lessons and communicate this to them. As can be seen in Figure 1 below, it is important for our teachers and ATs to have the opportunity to meet together in order to prepare for lessons and also reflect upon and feedback on student progress afterwards.
Figure 1 – Effective cycle of AT/teacher dialogue
Our ATs attend regular year group planning meetings. Attending these meetings ensures ATs have the opportunity to fully understand the reasons behind a lesson and learning objectives, the expectations of the teacher for the activities and crucially how best to support the students during activities. Individual teachers are also required to prepare their ATs in advance of lessons to ensure they know what is expected of them and which students they should be supporting. Importantly, our ATs are also included in the evaluation process alongside teachers to reflect on student learning successes and areas to continue to address.
ATs – Supporting personalised learning
The quality of verbal interactions in the room is central to effective teaching and learning. Our ATs have focused carefully on improving the quality of their student interactions through their own professional development and targeted support. We have emphasised a greater focus on ATs supporting student learning instead of task completion. With careful guidance, the emphasis has shifted towards the notion of ATs as scaffolders of learning. As Webster et al (2016) note, ATs frequently work with small groups of students, and are therefore well positioned to provide immediate feedback and targeted support with the parts of tasks students find difficult. Our ATs know not to immediately correct students and do their best to allow more space for them to think and respond. This is in alignment with the research of Dadds (2001) who refers to the dangers and pitfalls of a ‘hurry-along curriculum’ where teachers feel a sense of urgency to rush through content too quickly. A need to pause and reflect is highlighted as student understanding suffers in the process of rushing through the curriculum.
Alongside this, we have made a concerted drive to raise awareness of the importance of ATs using quality questioning to support the learning of our students. Our ATs are now more consistent in their use of open-ended rather than closed questions and are well placed to ensure personalised learning for our students, whether that is in helping ensure initial understanding or in supporting students to grapple with more complex extensions or challenge.
In the Junior School, we use the Seesaw platform for the children to take ownership of sharing examples of their learning that they are proud of with their teachers and their families. Many of our ATs have completed training opportunities such as the Seesaw Pioneer Programme in order to help them have an even greater understanding of each student in their class. Several of our ATs have become so proficient with Seesaw that they have led training sessions for the wider teaching staff on how to effectively utilise the platform.
ATs - Responsive teaching and DIRT
The focus of assessment during the year is formative and the role of the AT is significant in this process. We utilise the acronym DIRT, which stands for Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time. Beere (2014) refers to DIRT as quality formative peer or self-assessment. Students can consider their development alongside the original lesson objectives whilst contemplating what they were successful in and what they were also less successful at doing before formulating their next steps for improvement. Our teachers and ATs support our students to reflect on their learning and improve it further.
The Education Endowment Foundation (2015) highlight the importance of teachers, during lesson preparation time, ensuring ATs have the essential ‘need to knows’. Our teachers share with their AT in advance what the learning objectives are, what their role is within the lesson and what the teacher expectations are for the students. Having had this discussion in advance, ATs are then much better placed to support students in responding to feedback from the teacher as well as prompting further challenge. From experience, some children are very good at responding to formative feedback independently whilst others need more assistance to read the marking comments and act upon the advice given. Our ATs are invaluable in ensuring this is a meaningful process for all involved. As Isaacs et al (2013) note effective feedback needs to be a two-way process in order to be worthwhile. When ATs are well prepared in advance, they are much more effective in supporting students to deepen their subject understanding and ensure progress is made.
Assistant Teachers play an important role in supporting class teachers in nurturing personalised learning and providing quality feedback to our students. Working in close collaboration and as an extension of the teacher ensures that both members of staff observe students, track their progress, reflect and plan for next steps to support student learning.
Beere, J. (2014) The Perfect Teacher, Independent Thinking Press
Dadds, M. (2001) ‘Politics of Pedagogy: the state and children’, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 7 (1), 49-53
Dulwich College International (2019), An Argument For Rethinking Assessment. Retrieved from https://www.dulwich.org/careers/thought-leadership/an-argument-for-rethinking-assessment
Isaacs, Tina, Catherine Zara and Graham Herbert (2013). Key Concepts in Educational Assessment. London: Sage.
Sharples, J., Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (2015) Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants, Guidance Report, Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
Southwick, S. and Charney, D. (2012) ‘Chapter 12 – The Practice of Resilience’ in Resilience – The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges, Cambridge University Press.
Webster, R., Russell, A. and Blatchford, P. (2016) Maximising The Impact of Teaching Assistants, guidance for school leaders and teachers, Routledge.
William, D. (2011) ‘What is assessment for learning?’. Studies in educational Evaluation, 37 (1), 3-14