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The Alleynian Review: Assistant Teachers and Student Agency 

Junior School Head of Academic Development, Stephen Honey, discusses the important role Assistant Teachers play in a holistic approach to education.

The most effective resource in a successful organisation is its people. School facilities, enrichment and extra-curricular offerings are all incredibly important, but as Tarry and Cox note in their research, the key aspect of what attracts parents to a particular school, is the quality of its teaching staff.

Increasingly, the best schools in the world are recognising that alongside great teachers, they need excellent academic support staff. This was highlighted by the Federation of British Schools in Asia (FOBISIA) at their latest biennial teaching conference, held in Penang last November, where the development of Teaching Assistants was one of the central themes of focus.

Teaching Assistants are a growing part of the school workforce in many countries across the world. In just the UK, they comprise around 34% of the nursery and primary school workforce. To avoid any confusion throughout the rest of the article, at Dulwich College (Singapore), we refer to our Teaching Assistants as Assistant Teachers (ATs for short).

The role of the Junior School AT is about much more than photocopying and sharpening pencils. As stated by Alborz et al. in 2009, if they are well trained and supported, ATs can successfully nurture the learning and involvement of all students. At Dulwich College (Singapore), the potential of our Junior School ATs to support deeper learning and academic mastery is being recognised and their role has developed into a diverse teaching and support role.

Effective ATs have impact on classroom engagement, behaviour management, student wellbeing, peer relationships, positive approaches to learning and academic achievement. A key message coming from the Dulwich College International education team and their Worldwise education philosophy is that it is our duty, as educators, to provide opportunities for student agency so that our students come first. In line with this vision, this article will examine the important role that our Junior School ATs must take in order to ensure we create and nurture motivated learners who foster a stronger sense of autonomy.

Creating a shared vision

In the Junior School at Dulwich College (Singapore), we have been working to create a shared vision for our ATs and teachers on what their role should entail. We have collaborated closely with Eva Cartwright, an education consultant from the TA College, on this. Our vision is clear that our ATs should not be present purely as an extra pair of hands in the classroom or for admin support. As can be seen from Figure 1 below, our ATs should be supporting learning conversations and becoming an extension of the teacher in order to ensure they are contributing to the teaching and learning.

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In order to achieve this goal, we require the 4C’s of communication, consistency, collaboration and commitment. It is important that there are good communication channels between the class teacher and AT in terms of sharing planning, lesson preparation and outcomes of learning. ATs should model consistency with the class teacher they are supporting. Examples of this could be using the same vocabulary, behaviour strategies, assessment for learning methods and expectations as the teacher so as not to confuse the students. Effective collaboration between the teacher and AT in terms of everything that is going on in the classroom ensures that the AT is not merely just involved in the preparing resources and delivering support in lessons but, alongside the class teacher, is also observing, tracking student progress, reflecting and planning for next steps to support the learning of students. By emphasizing the importance of all staff being committed to this positive relationship between teacher and AT, we can maximize the impact on teaching and learning.

Supporting and Nurturing Autonomous Learners

At Dulwich College (Singapore), we want to nurture autonomous learners who can think for themselves and it is important that all teachers who support our students are fully aligned with this vision of promoting student agency. Research carried out at Harvard University by Ferguson et al (2015) describes student agency as the capacity and inclination to take purposeful initiative. They describe the development of agency as potentially being as important an outcome of schooling as the skills we measure with standardized testing such as reading, maths, reasoning and academic knowledge. The report highlights that students who exude the features of agency express the following characteristics: punctuality, good conduct, effort, help-seeking and conscientiousness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives. Similarly, Stixrud and Johnson (2018) suggest that a strong sense of autonomy is imperative in developing the healthy self-motivation that allows children to pursue their goals with passion and to take pleasure from their achievements. This is clearly the type of student that we wish to create across the Dulwich group of schools. Alongside all of our staff, our Junior School ATs must be aligned with this shared vision and understanding of what student agency is in order for them to best support our students in their learning. One of the best ways ATs can support this is through supporting students in developing their independence skills in the classroom.

Independence skills

At Dulwich College (Singapore), we believe that our Assistant Teachers can help all students develop the essential skills underpinning their learning. In terms of preparation, it is vital that time is set aside for the teacher to brief the AT before the lesson so that they know who to support and how to support them. Once this has happened, there are several further strategies that ATs can use in order to support independent learning skills. Research shows that improving the nature and quality of AT talk to students can encourage the development of independent learning skills, which are associated with improved learning outcomes (Webster et al 2016). One straightforward way that this can be achieved is by using more open-ended questioning and avoiding excessive use of closed-questions during learning conversations. Our Junior School ATs have copies of open-ended question stems on their desks and many carry around copies inside their lanyards in order to help with this. Another proven strategy is for ATs to provide the right amount of support at the right time. An effective way for an AT to achieve this when supporting a student is through scaffolding. This is where the level of support is gradually reduced over time and is a good method for discouraging over-reliance on adult support from the learners who need the most help. ATs can then work towards decreasing the scaffold and withdrawing it altogether when it is no longer required. Radford et al (2014) refer to heuristic scaffolding, which is the idea that ATs fade their support so that over time children eventually take control of their own learning. Webster et al (2016) refer to issues with ATs focussing on student task completion instead of ensuring they have appropriate understanding. In line with this, our ATs must avoid over-prompting and spoon-feeding of answers to the students that they are supporting. Equally, they should encourage children to take risks in their learning and need to know that it is good for students to struggle, wobble and get answers wrong.

Potential to Help or Hinder Learning

To nurture independent learners, you must have the best possible people in the room, and you have to have trained them well enough to succeed. Even with the best intentions at heart, evidence suggests that ATs have the potential to either help or hinder learning depending on their experience and the nature of the strategies they use. Ofsted (2004) cite that ineffective ATs may be less skilled in breaking tasks down and are prone to ensuring task completion rather than helping students improve their understanding and skills. Giangreco et al (1997) put forward the view that students can potentially become reliant on adult support and subsequently become less willing to engage in independent learning tasks. Similarly, Moyles and Suschitsky (1997) highlight a risk in ATs encouraging too much student dependency by offering too much support and guidance in the classroom. With regards to questioning, Rubie-Davis, Webster, Blatchford, Koutsoubou and Bassett (2010) discovered that ATs were less likely than teachers to ask open-ended questions and more likely to rephrase the question or provide additional information to the student so as to support them when answering. Radford, Blatchford and Webster (2011) found that ATs were more likely than teachers to 'close down' talk through using closed questions, self-correct or provide the answer when students made mistakes or failed to solve problems. They found that there was an absence of prompts and hints from ATs and by prioritising the outcomes of learning activities and helping with procedural matters there is a threat that students are not able to subsequently think for themselves.

Professional Development

To produce high levels of agency in our students we must ensure we train and develop them successfully enough in order to empower them to best support growth in independence in our students. As Bossidy (2011) declares, nothing is more important than hiring and developing the right people. At DCSG, we are committed to developing the best possible Junior School ATs in order to support our students in becoming independent learners. This is reflected in the job description for our Junior School ATs which states that we recognise ‘exceptional and inspirational ATs are a valuable resource in providing our children with an excellent education. Our ATs are ambitious for their students’ learning and put students first in everything they do’. We consider ourselves fortunate to have a highly skilled and devoted team of ATs working here, many of whom have been with us since the school opened.  Our Junior School ATs are well-qualified, predominantly to degree level, possess a wide skill-set with a variety of backgrounds and credentials. Several holding teaching degrees themselves and crucially they are keen to get better at what they do.

All Junior School ATs participate in whole school staff meetings and inset training, AT specific inset training, as well as being included in strategic action groups alongside teaching staff where their thoughts and opinions are listened to in developing an area of focus on the school improvement plan. We have Junior School ATs who have recently completed the CACHE Level 3 Diploma in Supporting Teaching and Learning qualification and we also have another AT who is currently a participant on the Accelerate Middle Leadership Programme organized by Dulwich College International. In the Junior School, we want to ensure that all of our ATs are helping to support independent learning in the classroom and as such, one of the current key strategic focusses for our Assistant Teachers is to develop their ability to support students in fostering independent learning skills.

Conclusion

Assistant Teachers play an important role in influencing and supporting independent learning habits in our students. With a close collaboration between teachers and ATs alongside effective professional development, our ATs will continue to develop a deeper understanding of strategies to support independent learning and contribute towards supporting students to become more intrinsically motivated and resilient in their attitudes.

 

References

  1. Alborz, A. Pearson, D. Farrell, P. and Howes, A. (2009) The Impact of Adult Support Staff on Pupils and Mainstream Schools – a Systematic Review of Evidence, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.
  2. Bossidy, L. and Charan, R. (2011) Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Random House Business revised edition.
  3. Ferguson, R. Phillips, S. Rowley, J. and Friedlander, J. (2015) The Influence of Teaching Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency, The Achievement Gap Initiative, Harvard University.
  4. Giancreco, M.F., Edelman, S., Luiselli, T.E., & MacFarland, S.Z.C. (1997) Helping or hovering? Effects of instructional assistant proximity on students with disabilities, Exceptional Children, 64, 7–18.
  5. Moyles, J. and Suschitzky, W. (1997) The employment and deployment of classroom support staff: head teachers’ perspectives. Research in Education 58(Nov.) 21-34
  6. Ofsted (2004) Remodelling the school workforce: Phase 1. HMI ref.2298. London, Ofsted
  7. Radford, J., Blatchford, P., & Webster, R. (2011). Opening up and closing down: How teachers and TAs manage turn-taking, topic and repair in mathematics lessons. Learning and Instruction, 21(5), 625–635.
  8. Rubie-Davies, C. M., Blatchford, P., Webster, R., Koutsoubou, M., & Bassett, P. (2010). Enhancing learning? A comparison of teacher and teaching assistant interactions with pupils. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 21(January), 429–449.
  9. Sharples, J. ,Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (2015) Making Best Use Of Teaching Assistants, Guidance Report, Education Endowment Foundation.
  10. Stixrud, W. and Johnson, N. (2018) The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, Viking, 1st Edition.
  11. Tarry, E. and Cox, A. (2013) Teaching Assistants in International Schools. John Catt Educational Limited.
  12. Webster, R, Russell, A. and Blatchford, P. Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants
  13. Guidance for school leaders and teachers, London Routledge (2016)

Dulwich College International’s Worldwise Education Philosophy, [Accessed October 2019] https://singapore.dulwich.org/careers/thought-leadership/dulwich-college-international-worldwise-educational-philosophy