What does mediation look like?

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These thoughts were shared with me by Sarah Seleznyov one of the Let’s Think Forum Council members. They really made me stop and think and I feel they should be shared here.

In considering the role of the teacher as mediator in a Let’s Think lesson (or any other), I have been looking at how the teacher behaves during children’s social construction.

I started by watching my own behaviours as a professional development leader and noticed that other professional development leaders set teachers off on a group task and then rotate around the room, interacting with groups.  I on the other hand (and other LT tutors I have observed) stand back and ‘survey the room’ – What does this mean?  What am I doing during this time?   I am listening, I am observing; I can see who is on or off-task, what the body language tells me about attitudes to the task; I can hear the different approaches to the task and begin to plan how I will sift through these in the whole class discussion that will follow.

I have also been watching teachers in Let’s Think lessons and other contexts, and have noticed what happens to the children when teachers interact with them during social construction.  In a recent lesson I saw, a teacher asked the children to talk in pairs on the carpet then kneeled down to engage with one pair.  The pair of children instantly stopped talking to each other and started responding to the teacher’s questions.  They therefore stopped questioning each other and stopped leading the conversation, becoming followers instead.  Around them other nearby pairs of children also stopped talking to each other and joined in this teacher-led conversation.  Meanwhile, children at the back of the carpet stopped talking about the lesson and started gossiping about other things but the teacher was so engaged at the front that they did not notice.

In another lesson, the teacher asked a question then gave them a minute to think about their answer in silence.  The teacher then asked them to talk to each other and watched them get started.  From the front of the carpet, the teacher could prompt those who did not get started immediately.  Where pairs of children did need support to get started, the teacher went over and said: ‘Tell your partner what you think and see if they agree’, encouraging the child to direct their answer at the other child and not the teacher.  As the teacher observed a small number of pairs of children slow down their pace of talk, a decision was taken to bring them back together for a whole class discussion.

Why as teachers do we feel the need to engage with learners during episodes of social construction?  I believe there are both internal and external motivators:

  1. We feel the need to be seen to be useful – ‘what benefit am I to the class if I am just standing there watching and listening?’  I would argue that the benefits of not interfering with social construction are great:  you will identify on and off-task behaviours more quickly and be able to tackle it immediately; you will be able to assess learning and plan your next question or task with greater accuracy.
  2. 2.     We feel it is expected of us – ‘what value will Ofsted / senior leadership say I am adding to learning?’  I would argue that your actions during the lesson need to be judged in relation to learning overall, rather than in relation to moments of time.  It was never the case in any Ofsted teaching and learning criteria that teachers should be constantly interacting with children.  Current Outstanding criteria state: Teachers systematically and effectively check pupils’ understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where they may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning. Systematically does not equate with constantly; checking should involve listening and watching, not just asking questions

So, ask yourself:  What do I do when the children are talking in pairs or groups?  How can I avoid destabilising social construction?  How can I better enable children to realise that they do not always need me to lead the learning?