‘But Pupil X never talks! How did you get them to talk?’

Written by Leah Crawford

I became aware, very early in my Let’s Think journey that teachers noticed a change in learners’ willingness to contribute and engage, even in the first few lessons.  Learners who were ordinarily, shy, lacking confidence or even previously disaffected seemed to forget their previous selves. Now I am a tutor and demonstrate lessons with unfamiliar learners.  During post-lesson discussion, the class teacher will always cite a learner who was more engaged and involved than is usual for them.  Sarah Seleznyov narrated a beautiful example of this recently in her blog about a boy in Reception on the autistic spectrum engaging in a collaborative problem-solving task.  Similarly, a teacher watching a Year 7 class I taught with a young girl in care was moved to tears by her ability to contribute when she was usually silent and disengaged.

This strange magic niggled away at me.  Because no educational intervention works magic.  But it can work cleverly.  What is it about the Let’s Think construct that has the potential to affect learners’ confidence so swiftly?  At first glance, we might expect some of our most vulnerable learners to flounder in a learning context that makes demands on self-regulation and deliberately takes learners through challenge.

To better understand this conundrum, I decided to shape one of my Master’s assignments around confidence and what follows is a summary of my findings.

I swiftly discovered that the notion of confidence is not popular with psychologists, educational or otherwise. It is just too wide-ranging, context dependent and slippery.  The construct that seemed most applicable to Let’s Think is that of self-efficacy.  Defined by the seminal psychologist, Albert Bandura, academic self-efficacy is context and discipline dependent.  It is about our perception of confidence in relation to a task, not to outcomes.

So, in a nutshell, “I believe I can have a good go at this task.”

Where does that belief come from?  What factors affect it?

There are signals that a school, a department and a teacher send out about their belief in learners in their setting and grouping practices, and in the complexity of tasks with which they ask learners to engage.  There are dialogic discourse patterns that need establishing around inclusion, elaboration, rigour and purpose.  And there is the building of metacognitive reflection through learning, so that learners are inducted into the habit of noticing, reviewing and adapting their thinking.

The table below aims to summarise my findings from the academic literature in a relational format.  Effie Maclellan offers a useful overview here and Caprara et al. here.

The headline in my review has to be that feeling efficacious in a given academic context is rooted in the memory of having done well.  No amount of verbal exhortation can replace this.  Equally, we cannot develop self-efficacy if we have not struggled, because we know in our heart of hearts, that we did something easy.  We don’t perceive the experience as valuable.  When we approach a novel task with a sense of efficacy, we are not only activating knowledge about similar tasks from the past – but the knowledge schemata that enabled us to tackle it.  So the voice in our head moves from ‘I believe I can have a good go at this…” to “I believe I can have a good go at this because I can remember having tackled something like it and how I went about it.”  Unsurprisingly, academic self-efficacy is often referred to as ‘self-regulatory efficacy’.

So what about those ‘magical’ early shifts in learner behaviour I referred to at the start of this blog?  If teacher observations prior to Let’s Think are reliable, and I’m sure they are, the shift in a learner’s willingness to engage and contribute can’t be based on their memory of having done well.   No positive memories can yet have been formed.

To explain these early shifts, we might need to pay attention to those early moves and decisions of the Let’s Think teacher that convey signals to a class about their individual and their group agency.  Teachers insist that all group members are consulted.  Learners have a safe space to orally draft ideas before going public.  Teachers ask for feedback on a group’s emerging response, not an individual’s.  They never, overtly, evaluate an idea but promote agency through self and peer evaluation with feedback such as ‘What led you to think that?’  ‘Could you tell us more about Y?’  ‘What do other groups think about X’s idea?’  They mediate and steer the group in purposeful directions, so that learners feel the task is authentically challenging and that they are getting somewhere.

It is not often, perhaps not often enough, that I get the chance to interview a group of learners after their first Let’s Think lesson and ask ‘How was that different to your usual English lessons?’  The last time I did this with six pupils in Year 5 their answers were:

  • The text was really interesting because it was like a puzzle. It made you want to read it.
  • You didn’t help us with the puzzle, you made us do it together.
  • You made us notice that we had different ideas and we had to argue with each other about that.
  • When I think now, the lesson got harder but we kept going. I still don’t know what the answer is.
  • What is the answer, Mrs Crawford?

I replied that I still wasn’t sure – but they should take the text with them, share it at home and keep thinking.