I am not a huge fan of student voice. It’s not that I think there are no benefits, and I’ve seen a large number of case studies that claim to have used student voice to transformative effects – especially in the personalised learning era of a few years ago. It’s more that I see tremendous opportunity cost in student voice and its offshoots that give pupils increased responsibility for things that really should be decided or carried out by adults. At its extreme, this results in pupils observing and feeding back to teachers, or deciding the curriculum, or teaching themselves with no input from the teacher.
This idea isn’t far away from student voice but I recommend it from my experience so far.
In December 2013 I visited Greenwich Free School, which serves an incredibly deprived estate between Woolwich and Eltham. It only had Years 7 and 8 at that time.
As it was still being built, it was basically a building site and a bunch of portacabins. Nonetheless I was incredibly impressed with the school. It’s hard for a school to feel particularly special in just an hour long visit. I realised that the reason I thought such good things about the school was, amongst many things, the conduct of the pupils.
It wasn’t that they were just compliant – our pupils are compliant here – it was that they were proactively welcoming and immediately talked about their learning. I compared it with my current school and how (sometimes) it can be hard to get pupils to talk about what they are learning. Partly, they aren’t practiced in it and don’t have the language to do so.
One thing that particularly impressed me was when I entered the first lesson. I was shown in by the Acting Headteacher. It was a Maths lesson and the teacher just carried on teaching, much as teachers at my school do. At my school I often wander round the back, peer at pupils’ work, and wait for an opportunity to ask the teacher “is everything to your satisfaction Madam/ Sir?”
However at GFS, one pupil stood up from the middle of the room and approached me.
He shook my hand and said “Welcome to our lesson. This is Maths. We are learning about sequences and looking for patterns. So far, we have learnt about x, y and z (I can’t remember everything he said). I have been working on x, but I got stuck, so I’m working through these problems. Have you got any questions?”
I was so stunned I grunted “no thanks” and then considered who the least articulate person in the room was at that point. Me. I wasn’t really prepared for the question or the information he launched at me. Nonetheless, it gave an immediate and brilliant impression.
I went into five other lessons and in each case the same thing happened. One Learning Ambassador stood up in each classroom and came to speak to me. At GFS I learnt that Learning Ambassadors rotate every week. The reason they do this is so that (nb any errors or omissions are due to my assumptions):
- The teacher is not disturbed by visitors to the lesson at all and carries on teaching (the Maths teacher did not look over once)
- The pupils have to be able to articulate what is going on in the lesson every lesson at any random moment.
- The learning ambassador takes responsibility for whether to disturb the teacher (eg if there is a telephone call or if the person entering says “I need you to ask Mr/s X to talk to me as I need to disturb the lesson).
- This discourages people from disturbing the lesson
- Promotes a kind of active citizenship when people visit.
Back at school:
I wondered if we could do it at my school. I wrote a document to some of my colleagues and said I think our pupils would be amazing at this. Much of this blog post is taken from the papers I wrote for the staff proposing and reviewing the idea.
- A pilot with Year 9
- One Learning Ambassador for each class. Eg one nominated for Maths 9/1, one for Maths 9/2, one for English 9/1 etc for all classes.
- Ambassadors nominated by subject teacher
- Ambassadors then get “training” – basically expectations and a laminated script to have in their pupil planners (as they get experienced they won’t have to look at the script)
- Ambassadors get “tested” eg tutors/ Heads of Year/ Leadership Group/ teachers/ Subject Leaders and anyone walk into lessons and see if the pupils remember to get up
- Let it go for a term or so (in the end we went for two terms)
- Ask teachers and pupils what they thought.
That’s it. I proposed it from the top of my head (i.e. without asking anyone at GFS what they did) and it came from the fact that I was so impressed when I saw it in action. I pointed out that there may be other benefits I couldn’t predict or other pitfalls I hadn’t predicted.
I asked our staff what they thought, and almost unanimously, we said ‘go for it’.
On 21st January 2014 we went for it.
I asked staff to nominate their learning ambassadors for every year 9 lesson, including our EAL lesson where the pupils have recently arrived in the country. I explained the concept to these 50 pupils, and asked them if they were up for it. They were visibly energised at the thought. I gave them a crib sheet (the same as listed below in red) but told them they didn’t have to use it. It took about half an hour, and that was it. We then resolved to see what happened.
Over the next two terms, every time we walked into a Year 9 lesson, no matter who it was, the pupil Learning Ambassador would greet us and often answer some tough questions. This included parent or prospective parent visitors and our OFSTED inspection (it was mentioned as a positive in the verbal report, though nothing ended up in the written report).
At one point my counterpart, the Head of Lower School (in our school I have delegated responsibility for everything to do with Years 9, 10 and 11, and the other Deputy for Years 7 and 8 and transition) walked into a Year 9 lesson as a part of his walks through the school. I think it was an accident but his feedback in capitals said: “amazing experience being welcomed by pupils THIS MUST GO WHOLE SCHOOL”.
On 8th March 2014, I attended an event called Pedagoo London. I was late to see Jo Facer speak, though she was excellent. She exudes real authority on English teaching, yet in getting to know her over the last year she’s also incredibly humble. Two things that make a superb leader. Anyway, she talked about visiting Knowledge is Power Program schools in America and in one of her anecdotes she talked about “greeters” who had made such strong impression on her at Gary Comer College Prep in Chicago. They sounded just like Learning Ambassadors (and I think are). It was reassuring to hear that others had had a great impression from them as well.
I don’t think ‘greeters’ or Learning Ambassadors are as rare as I thought – but I’d never come across them prior to my visit to GFS. I’m pleased I did because…
July 2014 – feedback
Learning Ambassadors – Staff Feedback
Of those that replied:
20 staff said we should extend the use of learning ambassadors to the whole school for 2014/5.
The comments were as follows:
“It’s such a great idea and very rewarding”
“It is a good idea and should be used more regularly and with all year groups.”
“Really good idea – popular with the pupils and brilliant when it happens BUT there needs to be a commitment to visit classrooms fairly regularly to give them an opportunity to perform. We don’t get enough visitors for this to happen naturally and most visitors at the moment are popping in to speak to a pupil- and do not expect to be greeted/approached by one of these learning ambassadors. Perhaps we need to train the staff as well as the ambassadors.”
“I think the concept is great and would like to see it in action with my Year 10 class next year. I think it would be really useful if we were able to appoint new learning ambassadors on a termly basis.”
0 staff said we should not use learning ambassadors in 2014/5
4 staff said we should continue to only use learning ambassadors in certain year groups in 2014/5 (eg Year 9)
The comments were:
Extend a little bit…….. yr 8 from Sept . Not year 10 or 11 and maybe year 7 in the summer term.
I’d like a longer trial with one group, maybe continuing with year 9 as they become year 10, before deciding to extend the concept to other year groups.
Worked well and year 9s seemed to be quite responsible in this role
2 staff said I do not know what learning ambassadors are so can’t offer an opinion.
The comments were:
I am not confident that I could explain to someone else so ‘I do not know what learning ambassadors are so can’t offer an opinion.’ I do intend to find out though! (This colleague returned from maternity leave in July)
4 staff said “other” and offered the following comments:
I don’t know what impact it has had and therefore cannot comment one way or the other
Learning Ambassadors – pupil feedback
- We should extend the use of learning ambassadors to the whole school for 2014/15 = 29
- We should not use learning ambassadors in 2014/15 – 0
- We should continue only to use learning ambassadors in certain year groups in 2014/15 (e.g. year 9) – 2
- Other (Please explain below) – 0
Pupil comments included:
Learning ambassadors are a great way to give responsibility to pupils. It also ensures that the lesson continues to run seamlessly and the teacher gets to carry on teaching. I believe that we should extend the use of learning ambassadors to the whole school for 2014/15.
It boosts your confidence with talking to teachers. It is a good way to represent our school. It makes me feel professional. I think that the higher achievers in the class should be learning ambassadors.
I think we should extend the use of learning ambassadors to the whole school in year 2014/15. As I have enjoyed my experience of being a learning ambassador. When visitors came into my class, I welcomed them with respect and understanding of what we are doing. Overall, my experience of being a learning ambassador has been amazing.
It was fun and I would like the whole school to so it.
I am happy to be a learning ambassador because you can talk with adults to tell them our names and what we are doing in our classes.
My experience of being a learning ambassador has been great. We should extend the use of it because we don’t miss our lessons and teachers don’t have to cut their lessons and it makes it easier.
It was a great experience, and it gives us confidence. But teachers should be regular in coming into our lessons so that the learning ambassadors can stay in practice.
My experience of being an ambassador was really amazing and when two teachers came in, I proudly stood up and spoke about my class.
I think we need to practice a bit longer. I think the learning ambassadors help as our lessons are not interrupted as easily.
The experiment was fantastic. The teachers should come into classes more so the ambassadors can be used more.
We decided in July to extend the use of Learning Ambassadors to the whole school in 2014/5. The Head of Lower School, the Heads of Year and myself were to discuss how best to do this and train them in the first couple of weeks in September.
I sent this email to all colleagues today (nb: Personal Responsibility is the thing we want to promote as a school to sit on top and complement our pupils’ compliant behaviour this year):
Following the excellent feedback on the pilot over two terms (see Appendix 2) on our Learning Ambassadors trial, we are going to make this a whole school initiative beginning Monday 22nd September.
During the week of Monday 15th September, the Head of Lower School and I will deliver year group assemblies outlining the expectations of learning ambassadors.
For each class that you teach, please can you nominate a Learning Ambassador. Please inform them that they are the learning ambassador for this class. This does not have to be the best or most articulate pupil in the class. There should be one per class. All pupils can be learning ambassadors.
When you receive visitors to your lesson – be they external visitors, parents on a tour, Heads of Faculty or Subject Leaders, someone doing a Learning Walk, an OFSTED inspector or a member of the Leadership Group, please do not stop what you are doing. It will be the Learning Ambassador’s job to deal with the visitor. If you need to be disturbed, they will inform you.
If the learning ambassador is not present, pupils will be told that someone should realise and fill in. We will rotate learning ambassadors each half term so all pupils have the opportunity to take positive personal responsibility.
All pupils will be given this handout to keep in their planners. They do not have to use it, but can if they wish to:
Do this for ALL visitors, whether you know them or not. Meet them at the door or go and greet them as soon as you notice they are there.
Welcome to our lesson. My name is _____________. (Shake their hands). This is (insert subject).
We are studying _____________. Our lesson objective is ___________________ (say if you’re not sure and you’re guessing).
I find this topic interesting/ exciting/ difficult/ challenging/ say how you find it. The people who are doing really well are ____________.
Say anything else of note, for example what you just finished studying.
I really like (subject) because….
I find (subject) difficult because….
Have you got any questions or can I help you?
If the person wants to talk to the teacher or disturb the lesson, please say that you will do this for them. Stand to the side of the lesson with your hand up and wait for the teacher to stop and ask what’s up.
If there are any issues, please ask
I’d encourage you to consider it. We feel like it complements the great behaviour (“too compliant” according to OFSTED inspectors) of our school. If you’d like to visit, you’re more than welcome.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
PS: Greenwich Free School is an amazing school and if they still take visitors I strongly encourage all educators to go and visit.