Enhancing the academic achievement of learners at risk

Below is a summary of two recent Ph.D. studies that were carried out in schools with a high proportion of learners at risk (pupils of low socio-economic status and non-native speakers of the main medium of instruction). Together, they deepen our insight into the impact of teacher input and support on the school achievement and development of students at risk.

1. DNA in primary schools: In his quasi-experimental study, Koen Van Gorp invited six Flemish teachers of 12-year old kids to set up a series of classroom activities on DNA. Quite a challenging topic, because in the official Flemish curriculum DNA is part of science courses in the final grades of secondary education (16 to 18-year olds).  Combining science teaching with language teaching, the teachers used a variety of methodological formats: whole-group activities, group work, individual work…. Koen Van Gorp aimed to find whether learners at risk would be able to build up pre-scientific knowledge and acquire academic vocabulary when exposed to complex subject matter. Which they did: at the end of the lesson series (spread over the course of a week) the students’ scores on a posttest were significantly higher than on the pretest administered at the onset of the lesson series. Quite strikingly, the pupils who had received more speaking turns during the whole-group activities made significantly more learning gains. This seems to imply that thinking aloud about difficult subject matter helps young pupils to develop scientific knowledge.  However, there were vast differences between the pupils in the same class in the number of turns they were given. In view of the above-mentioned link between turn-taking and explorative thinking, teachers should monitor their turn-taking and turn-giving behaviour consciously; intuitively and unconsciously many teachers appear to be inclined to interact most with students of whom they have high expectations. Secondly, the study revealed that pupils differ widely in the sources they used to develop their thinking and vocabulary: some clearly preferred to learn independently by reading the source material they were given, others tried to get the most out of the group work and peer support, and still others were constantly trying to get the teacher’s attention to check hypotheses and ask questions.  So, the lesson series probably worked that well for so many students in the sample because it contained all of the above-mentioned ingredients. High-quality education appears to rely on an interplay of a variety of sources and formats, allowing pupils to establish rich connections between their prior knowledge and new information. High teacher expectations are also crucial: if the lesson content is intrinsically motivating, learners at risk appear to be capable of coping with complex subject matter.

2. Between the linesIn her Ph.D. study Lieve Verheyden tracked the early second language writing development by pupils in the third and fourth grades of primary schools.  All pupils were asked to perform the same writing task (writing down the story depicted in a cartoon without words) six times, spread over a school year. The pupils (most of them learners at risk) made significant progress. They became better for spelling, communicative effectiveness, length, accuracy, complexity of their output…  But the progress was not linear: the pupils appeared to jump up and down, making huge progress between 2 consecutive sessions and then falling back again. “Spaghetti” is the term Verheyden used to describe the pupils’ capricious lines of development. The development of the different traits of the same students’ output was uneven and variable: for some students there appeared to be a trade-off between complexity and accuracy. And the students differed from each other in many ways: in terms of development, each student appeared to tell his own story.  The impact of teacher support and feedback turned out to be considerable. Teachers who observed what a pupil was writing, and then tailored her input and feedback to the student’s work,  clearly pushed the student’s writing development. Some teachers were pretty successful at “writing aloud”: recasting the pupil’s sentences aloud, inviting the pupil to reformulate and enrich the sentence, or demonstrating to the pupil how this could be done. In this way, the teacher could provide the student with vocabulary or ideas that the student could not come up with herself.  In this way, “writing aloud” became “writing together”. Building oral bridges between the text and the absent reader. Showing a young learner at risk in a supportive way how stories and storylines can be built up with words. Again, this study was very encouraging in that it showed that all learners at risk made significant progress, especially if their output was enriched. In these cases where the teacher assumed that writing stories was too hard for some of the pupils, and the pupils were asked to write very short sentences (rather than a full-blown story) to avoid errors, the student development was slowed down, rather than enhanced. So, as in the previous study, teacher expectations had a strong impact on the richness of the interaction between the teacher and the pupils and on the writing development that resulted from the interactions. Especially for learners at risk, teachers make a crucial difference.



Sustainable education: implications for language teacher education

washington sustainable education language teacher education

This is the slide show I used during the 8th International Conference on Language Teacher Education (1 June 2013). I used it for my presentation on the implications of sustainable education for language teacher education.


Sustainable education: what we can learn from Martin Luther King…

“Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate goals of his life. Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.

(Martin Luther King, 1947, in “The Maroon Tiger”)

Taking sustainable education to the street

What a great piece of street furniture!

Now let’s think about this couch in terms of sustainable education. In a secondary school, designing and installing original pieces of street furniture could turn into a fascinating, interdisciplinary, real-life project full of learning potential for adolescent students. Project teams could be composed of students of the vocational, technical and general academic strands of the same secondary school. Those teams could be asked to contact the municipal services in order to select four venues where such a unique couch – designed and manufactured by the student teams – can be placed. To make sure that the people living in the neighbourhood have no objections to the couches being placed in the designated areas, the students conduct a small-scale survey among local inhabitants. Two weeks before the couches are placed and revealed, local inhabitants receive a flyer (again designed by the pupils), inviting them to join the festive installment of the couches.

As such, the project would live up to many key features of sustainable education. For one, the pupils get a chance to develop a wide range of competences while performing meaningful and holistic tasks. They learn while trying to apply knowledge, skills and attitudes in an integrated manner to take on real-life challenges. Moreover, they learn together (with each other and from each other): cooperative learning across age groups and different strands of secondary education is enhanced. Pupils with different skills and knowledge join forces and may transcend their own expertise by profiting from the contributions of their peers, and as a result, produce surplus value for the local neighbourhood. In the same process, pupils learn to cope with social diversity while working together in highly diverse teams, and communicating/deliberating with different people outside school.

This kind of challenge, which invites pupils to work in teams to pursue a large common purpose is bound to unleash positive energy-for-learning. In turn, the product, and the learning that comes out of the process, may boost the students’ self-confidence and belief in their own learning potential. For school staff members, the project may provide a unique illustration of what becomes possible if the immense potential of the rich social capital at school is tapped. And, last but not least, the local neighbourhood will be able to enjoy its lovely street couch for many years to come…

The picture of this particular couch is on Mohammed Aitba’s facebook pages.

Another fine illustration of pupils of secondary education performing a holistic, interdisciplinary project can be accessed through the following link:

Enhancing creative thinking in education

Education should enhance young people’s creative thinking skills, so teachers are told. Creative thinking may help people to enrich their personal lives, solve all kinds of problems, discover new things and further their own development. And, what’s more, creative thinking can be big fun. There are, however, a number of misconceptions about creative thinking, and for education in particular it may be worthwhile to clear them up.

–  Misconception 1: Creative thinking has to do with art and artistic development only. Many people spontaneously think of Picasso, Van Gogh, Mozart and Shakespeare when the term ‘creativity’ is mentioned. But creative thinking does not only manifest itself in artistic work; in fact, it can apply to virtually any aspect of life. Each time people do new things with existing objects (“Look Mum, my hairpin has become a paperclip!”), look at a concept or fact from a new perspective, recombine existing ideas, try to solve a problem in an unorthodox way, give a new meaning, shape or colour to existing things, come up with a new word (“ Look Mum, a paperpin”), or make an unexpected movement, they are being creative. The essence of creative thinking is to deviate from existing ideas, practices, rituals, objects. This kind of deviation can be highly productive or revealing. Let’s take a famous example from the transport sector: The “London tube map” is so compact and clear because in 1931 Harry Beck (the designer) slightly deviated from the exact distances and exact geographical location of the tube stations above the ground, creating the very orderly map of the London underground network we are so familiar with.

Hence, a wise lesson for education: Creative thinking can be promoted across the curriculum (so in all subjects and domains). Everytime students are asked to try and do something new with existing objects, ideas, movements, problems, or their own prior knowledge in the classroom, creative thinking gets a chance to develop…

– Misconception 2: Creative thinking is an innate talent, so it’s very hard to develop it.  The biographies of creative geniuses like Edison and John Lennon reveal that they too based their inventions on slight deviations in their thinking, and, most crucially, strongly built upon the ideas and knowledge of many others. For one, Edison was not the only one to invent the light bulb in the 19th century. Around the same time, another scientist, Joseph Swan, also combined the available  knowledge and ideas of that era to design his own light bulb, but Edison appears to have been smarter in terms of securing the patent and exploiting the invention. So, we should not make a myth of creative thinking. The magic of creative thinking does not lie in the immense talent of a handful of prodigious geniuses, but in the immense difference that can be created as a result of a series of slight deviations, variations, or creations.  

Hence, another wise lesson for education: Everybody has a talent for creative thinking. Moreover, creative thinking skills can be enhanced by giving young people ample opportunity to explore new ideas, look at things and problems from a different perspective, let their imagination run free, use alternative senses and algorithms to solve certain problems or perform certain tasks….

– Misconception 3: Creative thinking is done by individuals. Edison would not have been able to build a network of light bulbs and illuminate a whole city without the aid and expertise of a large team. In most cases, creative work is teamwork. If different people work together (people with different talents and knowledge), chances increase that new ideas or slight deviations may arise.  If different people work together, they can build and draw upon each other’s contributions and expertise, which may result in an innovation that is more forceful than any of the different group members’ individual variations.  The latter becomes particularly relevant in light of the fact that many of the problems that mankind faces nowadays are so complex that it takes the ideas of many people (with different knowledge and ideas) to solve them.

Hence, another lesson for education: Invite student to solve complex problems or perform challenging tasks together.  Invite group members to listen to each other’s ideas and to recombine them. Work with groups that include students from different classes, strands, ages: exploit the social capital of the school.


– Misconception 4: Creative thinking always produces positive output. The range of ideas that people can come up with is seemingly infinite, but how valuable those ideas are largely depends of the use that is made of them. While some brilliant idea may solve some people’s problems, it may not suit other people’s purposes.  Creative thinking will often be spurred on by our dissatisfaction with the way things are going. To solve a problem or improve a situation, we start brainstorming, allowing our imagination to run wild, but we will need to judge the value of our ideas against the goals they need to serve. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “divergent thinking is not much use without the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one”.

Hence, another lesson for education: Creative thinking should be embedded in the performance of tasks inviting students to solve small and big problems. Students should judge the value of their ideas against the criteria determined by task performance. In this way, creative thinking can enhance students’ problem-solving skills.

–   Misconception 5: Only creative teachers can promote students’ creative thinking skills. From the above, it can be inferred that all teachers can be creative. Crucially, teachers should allow their students to think ‘out of the box’. Teachers do not need to be geniuses or creative artists to unleash  their students’ creative thinking potential. If they show they firmly believe their students will be able to come up with innovative ideas and give students many opportunities to do so, that in itself can make a fundamental difference.

Creative thinking in the classroom: putting principles to practice  –          Design: invite the pupils to refurbish certain parts of the school premises or surroundings: walls, classrooms, playground, website… Invite students to come up with ideas to embellish their neighbourhood or to enrich life in their neigbourhood (e.g., how to deal with traffic jams, how to fight rubbish in the streets…)-         Design plus: invite students to design a particular site (e.g. the new school garden or the public library of the future), and then ask them (in a second phase) to consider the needs of a particular group involved, challenging the students to reconsider their design (will the library of the future suit the needs of the elder and people in wheelchairs? Will butterflies and hedgehogs be able to survive in the new school garden?)-          Question time: Raise a fascinating scientific question and invite the students in a first phase to answer it, drawing on their prior knowledge, intuition, and imagination. Then, in a second phase, ask them to verify their answers or test their hypotheses by looking for information in relevant (scientific) sources.

–         Use the school surroundings: If a gigantic pit for an underground car park is being dug around the corner, then ask the students to come up with the most efficient method to calculate how many tons of sand need to be transported by how many trucks. In the same vein,  invite students to gather information about a certain topic by interviewing people living in the school neighbourhood.

–         Working with stories: Invite pupils to think up the end of a story that you stopped telling in the middle (or come up with a different ending for a story you just finished), or to think up the beginning of a story you started in the middle (what happened before X?). Invite them to give expression to their reading experience by writing an interview with a character, designing a new cover for the novel they read, making a Youtube-video to promote the book, or compiling the soundtrack for a short story or poem…..

–          Groups at work: compose groups that consist of pupils of different strands or programs in a secondary school and ask them to carry out a project or perform a task that requires complementary competences. E.g., ask groups to design and promote six strategies for renewing and saving energy around the school premises, to evaluate the practicability of these strategies by interviewing different stakeholders (pupils, teachers, parents, board of directors), and to present their action plan to the school community.

–         Pupils teach: Invite students to explain a scientific insight to students of a lower grade by making use of modern technology.

–         Guests in the classroom: Invite parents, experts, people with first-hand experience, professionals, employers to the classroom to shed light on a certain topic from a different perspective.

–          Let’s have another look: Look at a specific topic from a different perspective (What did the 19th century look like in China or Iran?). Invite students to react to a certain stimulus with a different sense (What do you hear in this painting?). Raise “what if…” –questions: what if this weren’t a table? What if people could fly? What would happen if there weren’t any bacteria left on earth?

–         Fix it: Ask students to make the most out of the minimal material they are given (e.g., three matches and a rope). Give an object to students that they are supposed to integrate in a presentation. Give students three unrelated pictures and ask them to build a coherent story around them.  Give these kinds of homeworks to kids, allowing them to mull over their assignments for a couple of days.

–         Playing and learning: Do not underestimate the learning potential in play. Integrate serious gaming in classroom activity. Invite students to design new games and write out the rules. Carry out research, together with the students, into the social and scientific insights people can develop while playing.

P.S. All the above-mentioned activities can be carried out by all pupils, not just the ‘brightest’, ‘most creative’ or ‘most talented’ kids in the class.

What is sustainable education?

Like cars run on fuel, education runs on energy. I am talking about the energy of students, teachers, administrators, parents and all others involved in educating. The balance we need to draw up is how much of that energy turns into actual learner development, and how much into other things like frustration, irritation, school dropout, and failure. I believe this is the central question any education system, and any individual teacher, must answer. If the energy learners invest in classroom activity leads to successful learning, this in turn may release new energy for learning. So, in essence, learning fuels further learning. If people’s energy turns into learning, this may enhance their self-confidence and social well-being, and may motivate them to put further effort in learning. If people participate in activities they find worthwhile and learn new things from, their willingness to engage in similar activities in the future may grow. Cognitively, too, learning is a springboard for further learning: all the knowledge, skills and attitudes that people successfully acquire can be used to confront new challenges, new ideas, new opinions. That’s basically how learning works and how the mind works.

So, if energy invested into learning turns into actual development, then that successful learning experience may unleash new motivational, social, emotional and cognitive energy for learning. In this way, energy for learning becomes renewable energy. The wheel keeps on turning. If this happens on a regular and systematic basis, and for every single student in the education system, energy-for-learning is exploited in a sustainable way, rather than being depleted. Then education becomes sustainable education.

This is the introduction to the 11-page White Paper on Sustainable Education that you can download on this blog, and that comprises  evidence-based suggestions for ways to enhance the sustainability, equity and effectiveness of 21th century education.