Setting Out

As I entered the room, the conversation was about Unite the Union and Ed Milliband, the leader of the Labour Party. As reported in the news that morning, Labour will persue policies based on sound economic principles. UNITEtheUnion will, its General Secretary announced, vigourously oppose public expenditure cuts, whatever the colour of the ruling party, where it jeopardises jobs and services. ‘How can you run a country without principles?’ one tutor asked . ‘Surely, you need principles?’ The question was left hanging in the air. Then someone said, ‘ Well, given that statement by UNITE, don’t you think Labour is suddenly so much more electable? Could it be part of a well thought-out plan? It does make you wonder.’ And so, the next session of Seedbed began.

There were a couple of people who hadn’t been able to attend the last session so I quickly recapped what we’d covered. I emphasised the importance of carrying out a Language, Literacy and/or Numeracy (LLN) audit of your course session plans. We then explored how this might link to different ways of teaching and learning.

We went on to look at how you find out what starting level your students are at when they join the course. Given how much emphasis is placed on identifying each student’s starting point, it is easy to forget we are working with a real person, not a set of SMARTly* written learning targets. Learning does not happen in boxes, it happens in heads.

We read that one of the lesson plans we’re studying is at Entry level but the audit we’ve just carried out indicates some activities are at level 1 and even level 2. This is quite often the case  in community provision where tutors are unsure about or don’t know how to check for a level. We discussed working collaboratively or allowing more time to achieve a task, set at a higher level. Alternatively, the tutor may decide to take it out of the session altogether. Students at different starting points and levels can work together if the tutor has clear assessment critieria. Nevertheless, keep it simple and relevant or you will lose the students’ interest and motivation. As an example, one of the groups presented their ideas for an initial assessment for a mosaic’s course. It was made up of three parts, covering kinaesthetic, numeracy and speaking and listening approaches.  If the picture of the student arising out of completing the initial assessment is to be of use, the results need to be mapped to the core curriculum, a set of LLN standards, which provide a baseline and show progression and achievement. I sensed the fog was descending again.

The previous exercise clearly got everybody thinking.’Why did I put that there?’, referring to  percentages, bar and pie charts. It shows that tutors may have gaps in their knowledge and need a refresher themselves. ‘But can you make initial assessment fun?’, someone asked.

I’d asked both groups to make an initial assessment for a healthy eating and a ceramics course. The tasks or questions they chose were based on what they had found when they did the audit. Questions kept on rising. ‘How do you know that someone hasn’t copied the answers?’ ‘What if a student is repeating the assessment and remembering the responses?’

Suddenly, one of the tutors spoke out. ‘This is really important. It has to be done but it has to be done in the right way or else it can really put someone off coming. I was saying to one of the tutors I work with about doing a PTLLS** course. They’ll ask you to do some writing, I told him, that’s all.’ But his friend turned white. ‘I’m a brickie,’ his colleague said,  I haven’t done any writing for over 30 years!’

‘This reminds me of working in school. Some teachers have really detailed schemes of work which look marvellous but they end up going through the motions, taking the dollar’.

‘Literacy is so important,’ said another tutor.He went on to tell us about a trip he’d made to visit a literacy scheme in Nicaragua. The adults had been unable to read out letters of the alphabet at the start of the course but, only a few weeks later, they had learned how to write a short letter. They move later on to thinking about how to deal with some of the key issues facing their community. He likened it to a ‘flowering’ within the person and the group. Over the last year, some of our WEA tutors have had the opportunity to explore this approach a little by attending some Training for Transformation (T4T), workshops.

Back to earth, more questions kept coming. Is initial assessment a test or can it be an activity? Where do you find the time to do all the assessments  for literacy, numeracy and IT during the first lesson?

One tutor said he was keen to get going. He could clearly see the value of  assessing starting points, of planning and delivery, taking individual starting points and needs into account; of appropriate assessment, recording and evidencing. I noted with interest that this tutor had yet to start teaching a contextualised SfL course, while some of the former were already working with groups and trying to make it happen.

Reflecting on my own experience as both a tutor and a curriculum manager, I am asking  my tutors to follow what is standard good practice in the sector. This is how it’s done. However, listening to tutors around the table, I felt my way in, if not without its difficulties, had been more straightforward for me. I had started out as a basic skills tutor, then had had the opportunity to develop contextualised SfL courses in local history and creative writing. It seemed to me harder to try to do it the other way round.

One tutor offered us the example of a group successfully making cakes together in a class. All the learners were involved, some with learning support. I wondered out loud if the successful outcomes for a SfL cake making course might be if each learner feels able enough to make their own cake outside of class ?

A week later, I went along to a curriculum meeting, attended by the regional education team. The Regional Director had asked us to write up an activity for a particular curriculum area of our choice. I chose numeracy, a task involving research skills. I was fascinated by the statistics, presented in the Spirit Level book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Taking questions after listening to a presentation on the Spirit level, a member of the audience stood up and commented that she had never been so engrossed by graphs and charts! ‘What a shame they don’t teach this in schools!’, she said.

I thought then these charts would make a really good maths lesson. Maybe, they do teach this in schools. I hope so. But with all the requirements of assessing levels and for having differentiated outcomes, for tracking progress and assessment, how would it work? Is a lighter touch possible, involving everyone who wants to take part? What of the liberating developmental model, proposed from T4T? Could that offer us a way forward?

‘A beginner reader is not a beginner thinker’ is the maxim I have tried to teach by all my Basic Skills teaching life, which is most of it. How would a curious person with gaps in their maths fare on such a course today? Would they even get past the skills check and onto the course? Was it true, as I’d heard, that many experienced basic skills tutors leave the profession because the paperwork grinds them down and stifles creativity?

How to foster a learning, thinking culture while satisfying the requirements of internal and external auditors remains a key question? Is it possible? In my view, it is. I’ve seen it done. I’ve observed and experienced it many times. Tending to favour the actual learning over the recording process at times, when it felt like a struggle to do both, I nevertheless accepted the need to have both to a reasonable standard if I was to do justice to my students’ progress and achievements.

My conclusion is that you only set out along this path if you feel committed to this area of teaching. It is hugely satisfying and rewarding and can set people who would have thought learning is not for them on a whole new path. You also need to work at the recording aspects of the role. This does help you improve all round as a tutor. Ideally, a tutor should be in a position to offer two versions of the same course; one which is subject-based and a second, which follows an embedded SfL approach. Based on identifyng the needs of students first, the tutor can decide on the best way forward.

Well, that’s what I think. What do you think?

*SMART is an acronym for writiing individual and group learning outcomes for a course which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

**PTLLS – Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector, an initial teacher training course for working with adult learners


6 thoughts on “Setting Out

  1. Interesting stuff! Love the example from Nicaragua – and it offers a timely counterpoint to the examples of now NOT to offer literacy and numeracy support in yesterday’s Guardian.
    Though fair to say that the same article underlines the need for support and sensitive interventions in a city where a high proportion of long term unemployed are showing skills below Entry 3 and in a job market where there are somewhere between 23 and 58 jobseekers for every single job advertised.
    Loved your use of the statistics from The Spirit Level as a learning aid, too.

    • Thanks, Nicky, it’s good to get feedback. This is just how the session unfolded and it’s interesting to observe the thoughts and reactions of tutors, considering developing SfL skills and approaches. There are six others all from previous sessions, if you’re interested. Not sure you will have time to read them, thought. I’ve got yesterday’s Guardian and am looking forward to reading the articles tomorrow. It’s a good debate for us to have.


    • By debate, I don’t just mean between you and I. I agree about the need to provide sufficient basic skills support for adults faced with a changing job market and rising unemployment. It may not have been clear to you that my focus was on embedded rather than discreet Skills for Life classes. All the tutors attending this NIACE Seedbed training already teach for the WEA in the community programme.
      On the stats question, the very next paragraph mentions a Polish learner who will bring the average level down further. Statistical quotes can be misleading when taken out of context.
      A really good read. Thanks for pointing it out. I’d bought it for the Everton match report, to read about a great victory over Man City.

    • forgot to add that the reason I think we have to offer embedded/contextualised SfL is that maybe only a quarter of students who would benefit from Basic Skills support go to classes. This is particularly so of literacy/numeracy students. Less so for ESOL learners for whom there is often a shortage of provision. So, contextualised courses are more attractive to more peopl, I think. The figure is based on something I heard some years ago. I’ve kept it as a rule of thumb.

  2. A thought provoking article Bernie that certainly captures the current picture with some of our classes. Unfortunately, we have had a few casualties with some tutors choosing not to contextualise their courses any longer as they felt quite paralysed by the expectations demanded of them in regards to complex SfL paperwork and evidencing progress and achievement for mixed level learners while trying to teach another subject at the same time. Interestingly the same tutors insist that their learners have benefited from the SfL approach taken on their courses and state that they are still going to embed numeracy and/or literacy skills where appropriate and provide this ‘added value’ for their learner groups. Now, here comes the dilemma, if you ’embed’ numeracy or literacy within a course you do not require a SfL learning aim code, therefore escape the complexity of all the referencing and evidencing etc. ‘Contextualised’ courses require a SfL learning aim code with all the evidencing we have spoken about. Ironically, it appears that tutors appear to enage more naturally with the embedded approach and with the pressure removed, better able to provide a challenging learning environment for their groups. Such groups also have the option of progressing onto more discrete SfL provision if desired. To conclude, I believe that we need to take on board both approaches and be adaptable to the different needs of our learner groups.

    • Thanks, Susan, you’ve given this a lot of thought. How good it is to be able to think a little more deeply about what we do than we normally get in meetings, for instance. I enjoyed reading your reply. More food for thought!

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