This is from a leaders perspective, but for teachers, they are as equally applicable and a very useful tool to monitor your own teaching effectiveness and, most importantly, provide students with an authentic 'agency' context.
What are Student Focus Groups?
At our place, over the last two years we have been collecting voice from three focus groups. We have had a focus group for Math, Reading and Writing, and they are taken by myself, my Deputy and our Math Support Teacher (also our AP). For the last two years, we have selected several students from each class. We chose to work with students who were identified as achieving well in those areas. No students were in more than one group, which gave us a cross section of students across the school. We looked for a balance of culture and gender. This year, it is different again, and we are working with students identified as our priority learners (those who are not yet where they need to be academically) and the focus groups are in class. I collect voice in writing.
How do they operate?
We ask our students a series of questions (that we predetermine from our priorities which are based on what we know from our data and what we want to find out). These questions tend to change each year.
Why do we collect voice? What are the benefits?
- It helps teachers find out about the impact of their teaching on student engagement, achievement and learning, and fits into their Teacher as Inquiry foci.
- It helps teachers co-construct next learning steps and directions, especially if they involve students in what and how they learn. Knowing what their students are saying helps them improve things in the classroom for their students.
- It helps the leadership in the school review programmes and understand what is happening in the school.
- It provides students an opportunity to make suggestions for improvements, and articulate what they are learning, the benefit of what they are learning, their goals and their next steps.
- It helps our students understand that Math, Reading and Writing are intertwined across the curriculum and it helps us find out how students interconnect these skills across different curriculum areas.
- It helps us find out if a new approach to teaching is working and making a difference.
- It provides teachers with feedback, and it gives them evidence from student voice about what is happening in their classrooms, from a students perspective.
- It provides a different vehicle for reflection in order to improve practice, by reflecting on the feedback, looking at what is effective and what needs strengthened, and this in turn feeds into their digital portfolios.
Why it is a positive opportunity and not a negative
We understood that for some teachers, this could be a bit of a daunting prospect. It was important to us that our teachers understood that this process was not about 'checking up' but more about evolving from the ATOL voice collection to a process that allowed us to provide support if required, and to celebrate the amazing things happening. It is a very powerful way to manage assumptions and as a leader, understand what is happening for students regarding learning and engagement, in classrooms. In addition;
- Teachers can look at what their students are saying, particularly around any improvements they might want to make, and co-construct those modifications with them, providing students with an authentic process to see change in action.
- They can use the questions and responses to help them tailor make their programmes.
- They can use it as a springboard to involving students more in decision making processes, especially around providing them with choices.
- They can use the information to see if what they are doing is making a difference, if their students can understand what is being taught and how well their students can articulate what they are learning.
Examples of the Questions:
This years questions:
Who is responsible for your learning?
How has writing started for you this year?
What are your goals?
How do you know what you need to learn (work on) next?
If you were in charge of writing in your class, what would you do? (how can we improve writing in our school)
Sample from previous years:
What does Reading/Writing/Math look like in your class? (if I lifted the roof off, what would I see happening?)
Whats better? (than last time we spoke)
What opportunities do you get to talk about your Reading/Writing/Math?
What are your suggestions for next year? (a great end of year wrap up question - one of the suggestions from one of my groups last year was that each teacher have their own focus group within the class, a fabulous idea, juries out as to how many teachers have implemented something like that)