Working Groups with Sixth Form Teachers

Thinking Writing believes that the best way to develop students’ abilities in reading and writing is through working with teaching staff in their own contexts to develop their practice. This may seem obvious but it runs counter to a still dominant conception that reading and writing are academic ‘skills’ that can be developed separately from content knowledge and therefore ‘delivered’ by non-content teachers. Indeed the first work with did with secondary schools fell into this model – see Focus on Writing.

From March 2014 we shifted the emphasis of our work with schools more decisively to professional development. In these pages we give an overview of how we set up working groups in two post-16 settings (a school sixth form and a sixth form college), broadly using a ‘professional learning communities’ approach:

Through collaborative inquiry, teachers explore new ideas, current practice and evidence of student learning using processes that respect them as the experts on what is needed to improve their own practice and increase student learning (Vescio, Ross and Adams, 2008).

Setting up the working groups:

Taking the development of students’ critical reading and writing as a concern we knew many teachers shared, we first generated interest at staff development events.  On the basis of these initial workshops and talks, subject-teaching staff put themselves forward to be involved in the longer term collaboration - a commitment to meeting together for around an hour every 6-8 weeks over the course of a year and a half.  At each site a working group of 4-8 members emerged. Members taught across a range of subjects and levels.

How we worked:

Our basic approach was to use what the teachers felt the needs were in their classes and in their wider institutional and assessment contexts as the starting points for discussion, reflection and the generation of suggested actions. As part of this we contributed practical suggestions that could be taken up, adapted and then form a basis for feedback next time. Sessions ended with some refocusing on where further discussion might take us.  A typical session, then, would involve members sharing their experiences of trying out suggestions, reviewing and discussing that week’s chosen focus, and generating and swopping further suggestions to try out in the classroom. View the outline for a working group session

Running through the discussions and underpinning our suggestions were the same principles that we use in our work at university level:

  • That writing (and reading) can be used as a thinking tool
  • That writing (and reading) is meaning making
  • That generative writing – where a writer is exploring their thinking and experience – is valuable
  • That generative writing is not the end point of writing – extensive review, structuring and editing also need to take place to craft a text
  • That by paying attention to texts in their teaching teachers can develop students’ understanding, learning and writing
  • That approaches suggested by us are not designed to be classroom ‘one-offs’ or used in an ‘off-the-peg’  way but should be adapted, woven into teaching and repeated with students.

To find out more about the areas we explored, click through to the next few pages. Start here

It felt like we were all there supporting and helping each other, and rather than being trained, we were being supported.  I think that worked really well. 

Note about the materials included in this series of pages:

We have included our unedited ‘real’ materials as they were developed at the time, including outlines and notes from our sessions, in order to show the open, dialogic nature of our approach in this work. Names of our partner institutions have been removed, but throughout we use the words of the teachers taken from evaluation interviews conducted by a colleague from Widening Participation in 2015.