Name of Service Provider: Quality Projects in Education
Name of Project/Intervention: Differentiated Support Research Project
Duration of project: 2013-2014
Where was the Project based: KwaZulu-Natal
The project focused on developing and researching an out-of-school-time (OST) intervention for selected learners from four schools. These learners had poor socio-economic backgrounds and needed extra support in consolidating the conceptual understanding necessary for mastery of English, Mathematics and Physical Science. The project involved the design and use of various materials supporting the work of the schoolteachers.
Support lessons took place after school or on Saturdays at the selected schools with either the schoolteacher or an external tutor. Learners had approximately 32 hours of extra tuition in each of three subjects each year. The participating teachers worked as members of the research team in providing feedback on the use of the approach and changes to activities and materials that were required to make them more effective and likely to be adopted. Ten workshops were held over the two years of the project.
Key findings from the project included:
• Project implementation – it was obvious from project records and self-reports that not all project activities were implemented as planned. The three main reasons given by teachers and tutors for not implementing or deviating from the planned project approach related to available time, examination preparation, and pressure from learners.
• Differentiation – the participants reported that providing different activities to learners based on individual learning needs did not take place as envisaged. In general, the learners did all the activities even if competent in some areas. For various reasons the tutors and learners were more comfortable with lock-step tuition where all learners did the same activity at the same time even if divided into small groups.
• Adoption and implementation of the structured approach – the participants showed enthusiasm for the approach and associated strategies. Tutors indicated that they had tried the strategies, in many cases adapted them to suit their context, and used them in their normal classrooms. However, the majority indicated that it was in the second year that they began to understand the intricacies of the approach and began to feel that learners were benefiting. It appears that at times tutors implemented as if the project involved individual strategies with some picking and choosing of activities, instead of implementing the intervention approach as planned.
• Successful strategies and activities – some strategies were adopted more readily than others were. Given that this was a research project, the strategies and associated activities underwent changes because of feedback. There was also selective adoption by tutors, in part driven by subject discipline preferences while learners had definite preference for some such as “Useful summaries” over others such as “Learning journals”.
The recommendations for any future similar projects included:
• Achieving buy-in from both the school management and more specifically the individuals who use the innovation. The buy-in must focus on the user
• Ensuring that the intervention is simple in structure, and has clear terminology enabling participants to easily understand the components and the linkages
• Recognising that introducing new ways of working takes a significant amount of time. The project must be conceptualised as a journey and not as a once-off event
• Modelling i.e. demonstrating the new approach and strategies with learners. Participants need to see the strategy in action as this generates confidence in the “do-ability” of the intervention
• Promoting sustainability of the project by focusing on normal classroom teaching, rather than positioning the interventions as being an add-on which often stops once the project finishes
• Creating an examination focus by making obvious the link between the support activities and examinations. The examination is the current driver in school classrooms and its power to subvert and redirect all activities should not be underestimated
• Recognising that teachers and learners find the introduction of differentiation difficult. Differentiated activities have their place but their use is heavily dependent on both academic levels of learner, teacher ability, and type of activity
• Providing learners with more control. Diagnostic tests are more effective as learning tools in the hands of learners. Learners are beginning to resist the continual testing regime in schools. They should be renamed “Conceptual probes” to distance them from tests
• Recognising that skill development activities require extensive scaffolding and modelling as learners are not used to the higher cognitive demands made by these types of activity
• Co-opting teachers into a research project as partners is a powerful means of professional development for them and has many positives for the project
The impact of the approach on learners’ achievement will only be determined once the Grade 12 results have been released. Common baseline tests were carried out in Grade 8 and the next common test will be the Grade 12 NSC examinations. During the research project, schools were using their own individual testing programmes to monitor the students’ progress. Examination of these individual school profiles indicates that results are mixed, with learners at different schools progressing differently. Some learners are improving beyond the norm and others are in fact regressing.
Any evaluation of the intervention using learner achievement data must take into account that the intervention took place in the environment of an action research project. As the research cycles took place, it was obvious that some strategies were not working effectively and needed adaption or replacing. It is only now at the end of the research project that we have confidence in an approach that has every chance of improving the long-term achievement of learners. Once the G12 results are available, regression analysis will need to take place to determine which project factors have been most influential in improving achievement, given that each school OST support context is different.