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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The power of talk: how teaching assistants can boost pupils’ independence and learning

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 September 2015

 Rob Webster, Paula Bosanquet and Julie Radford
Schools are increasingly using research evidence to inform their strategic and day-to-day practice. A key resource is the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Consistently top of the EEF’s list of ‘what works’ are teacher feedback and strategies relating to metacognition. Evidence suggests pupils could make up to eight months’ additional progress if such approaches are successfully implemented.
A bonus of embedding these techniques is that they tend to be very cost-effective, offering schools sizeable value for money compared with, say, one-to-one tuition (currently fourth on the EEF’s chart).
One of the less cost-effective investments schools could make, according to the Toolkit, is teaching assistants (TAs). Evidence suggests schools could gain just one month of additional progress from spending on TAs. However, the evidence on impact is much more nuanced than this suggests. How schools use TAs dramatically affects the bang they get for their buck in terms of learning outcomes. As Rob Webster and colleagues explain in the recent guidance report co-written with the EEF, some ways of using TAs work better than others.
One option that’s received little attention is using TAs to provide feedback to pupils and develop independent learning skills – those valuable things that aid progress. Evidence shows TAs tend not to be sufficiently skilled in using these techniques, which – when you consider how frequently they interact with pupils – represents a seriously missed opportunity.
Yet expecting TAs to achieve the substantive gains from giving high-quality formative feedback that the EEF Toolkit suggests are possible is unlikely. Why?
Well, these approaches tend to assume that the person giving the feedback is a teacher. And with this assumption comes a whole set of other assumptions about the professional training and subject specialisms teachers have – not to mention the responsibility for the progress of thirty or more pupils. The same is true of supporting the development of metacognitive (thinking about thinking) strategies.
This is not to say that only teachers can or should provide feedback or use techniques that develop higher-order thinking skills, but that it’s important to recognise, quite genuinely, that TAs come at pupil interaction from a base that is different to that of teachers.
An appropriately calibrated role for TAs in relation to effective feedback and the development of pupils’ independent learning skills can help schools grow their capacity and opportunity for the valuable types of talk that have incalculable benefits for improving pupils’ relationship with learning.
Our new book, The Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Effective Interaction: How to Maximise your Practice, sets out such a role for TAs that connects with the kinds of practice that evidence shows has a measurable impact on learning. We introduce a process of scaffolding that directly attends to developing pupils’ independence and their ownership of learning. Based on a classroom-tested framework and backed up by social constructivist learning theory, we set out a new approach to interactions covering the main contexts in which TAs work. The book includes practical strategies and reflective activities to help TAs improve the support they provide in relation to assessment for learning, working with groups on collaborative tasks and delivering intervention programmes.
We have written The TA’s Guide… in response to the requests for clear guidance on classroom talk and professional development tools, which we have received from TAs, the teachers and SENCos (special educational needs coordinators) who manage their work, and headteachers looking for new ways to release the potential of their classroom support staff.
Following on from the extensive and ground-breaking research on TAs we have been involved with, our new book deliberately dovetails with, complements and extends our wider efforts to raise the profile of the TA role and to ensure school leaders do all they can to maximise their impact.
The Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Effective Interaction, by Paula Bosanquet, Julie Radford and Rob Webster, was published last month by Routledge.

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