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Differentiating Work and Keeping Learners Motivated within a Group with Wide Ranging Abilities
The Entry to Employment (E2E) programme is a roll-on/roll-off course designed to provide a pathway for 16-18 year olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) towards employment or further education.
As many of these learners have not been in any sort of education for some time due to exclusion or other barriers to their learning, they may arrive with a lack of understanding of their own abilities, current level of knowledge and, often, learning difficulties that may or may not have been identified previously.
Using case studies of students that have been anonymised, this paper will examine ways in which work can be differentiated for students, particularly those with learning difficulties, in a group that has a wide range of abilities. It will also look at ways to motivate learners affected by their own realisation that they may not be at the same level of their peers to work towards qualifications at their own standard.
Over the last 2 years I have been teaching students in the Foundation Department of East Riding College where I have taught learners with mild learning difficulties and other barriers to learning.
In this time the department has also taken on the provision of an E2E course which has been developed to offer NEETs a route into further education, apprenticeships or employment. The aim of the course is to develop the learners' basic literacy, numeracy and ICT skills and also provide other subjects that will enhance their employment and social skills to a level that would be acceptable to an employer.
Although E2E Entitlement Curriculum states that:
Some young people may enter E2E with learning difficulties and disabilities or may come into E2E at below entry level. The role of E2E for these learners, and their progress and achievement through the programme will need to be carefully negotiated. Every consideration should be taken to ensure that young people are not placed permissively on E2E because their behaviour or needs may prohibit them being placed elsewhere (LSC, 2006, p.6).
It has been my experience that some learners that are referred to E2E arrive with learning difficulties that are not statemented or have never been identified because the learner has not been in any sort of education for some time due to exclusion from school or other barriers to education.
As Petty, observes: “Each learner is unique and has individual needs. If the needs of our learners are discovered and met, the chances of success are greatly increased” (Petty, 2009, p.530). So it is essential that initial and diagnostic assessments are carried out for each of the learners as soon as possible to identify any learning difficulties and enable strategies to be put into place to provide support for the student.
Motivation, as with all education, is an important factor that affects learners on the E2E course. Scales points out that “Everyone is motivated to learn; it's part of what it means to be human.” (Scales, 2008, p. 237.), but also clarifies that “Learning is natural; education, unfortunately isn't.” (Scales, 2008, p.238). In the case of many E2E students, although “street wise” due to life experiences, further formal education would not have been envisaged in their own future. They have little or no intrinsic motivation to take up studying and comply with course requirements.
Whereas intrinsic motivation in education can be seen as a desire for the student to learn for their own needs and interests, extrinsic motivation is often a major part of learning using the provision of rewards, competition or sanctions (Harkin et al. 2001, p.67).
Although extrinsic motivation can be useful when undertaking tedious tasks, it is obviously more desirable for a student to develop an intrinsic motivation to learn.
Self-efficacy, as described by Bandura, in his social cognitive theory is “the belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations” (Bandura, 1995, p. 2). He also states that a person with strong self-efficacy will develop strong intrinsic motivations towards tasks and interests (Bandura, 1994).
Initially many of the students are placed on the course by Connexions. As it is not always their own choice to re-join education, their only motivation to join the course appears to be extrinsic, for example in the form of Education Maintenance Allowance or as part of a court order. Much has to be done to motivate these learners and many extrinsic motivators need to be applied such as praise and encouragement or physical rewards (e.g. chocolate).
A particular feature that I have observed is that although the college is in an average sized town with several secondary schools, most of the learners know each other due to being placed in various Work Related Learning or Pupil Referral groups. This can lead to a particular type of de-motivation as new learners join the group. This is where a learner does not understand their own current level of knowledge and understanding of a subject due to the fact that they have been out of education for some time and they see that their peers may be undertaking work of a higher level than them. The scenario tends to be: because their friend is doing a certain level of work, they too want to do work at this level. They then find that they are not able to do the work because of their current capabilities and so become de-motivated because they believe themselves inferior. With regard to Reece and Walker's adaptation of Maslow's hierarchy of basic human needs as applied to the classroom, (Reece & Walker, 2007), self-esteem is lowered and so motivation is affected.
O'Brien and Guiney state that: ‘Differentiation is not about troubleshooting. It is a concept that has to be seen in an inclusive way, applying to everyone' (O'Brien & Guiney, 2001, p. ix). Of course, attention should always be paid to the differentiation of work for students in all classes, but for the reason mentioned above it is particularly important that work is differentiated for these learners so that their self-esteem is not affected.
Case 1- Student J.
J. joined a new group with seven other learners. He had travelled around the country with his family and so did not know any of the other learners. On his application to join the course he stated that he had no learning difficulties. His initial assessment results showed that he was Entry 1 for literacy and numeracy where the other learners were Entry 3 to Level 1. J. was upset when in the first class he was given a diagnostic numeracy test at Entry 2 when other learners were completing diagnostics at a higher level. In discussion with J. it appeared that he may have had dyslexia as he described some of the classic signs such as seeing floating words and writing words backwards. He explained that he had always thought of himself as stupid and blamed himself for his poor literacy and numeracy skills.
Following a screening within the college, it was confirmed that J. did have dyslexia and strategies were put into place to support his future learning such as the allocation of a Learning Support Advisor to work with him when required. This was the initial step in then finding ways that work could be differentiated in ways that suited J.
When developing worksheets for a class, it became important that if separate worksheets were appropriate for different level students, all sets would lead to the same answers or conclusions. For example, higher level learners may be asked to write an answer in a few sentences, whereas J. may be given multiple choice answers or a cloze exercise. The important thing being that when, as a group, we could go through work and J. would feel confident giving answers along with his peers.
Mentoring was also beneficial to J. He would often understand things better if he was helped by one of his peers. Because of this, J. would work well in small groups with particular learners making sure that the groups were chosen carefully.
There has been a definite change in J's self-efficacy. Gross states that “this is brought about best through actual experience in facing previously feared or avoided situations” (Gross, 2009, p.832). J. appears to be developing an intrinsic motivation to learn and is now intending to move on to a foundation level course.
Case 2- Student B.
B. has many barriers to learning including behavioural problems and a lack of appropriate social skills. B. knew many of the learners in the group that she was joining and immediately wanted to do the work that they were doing despite the fact that her initial assessment had shown her to be at a lower level of ability than her friends were currently at. It was explained to B. that she needed to work at her literacy skills to attain the level that they were at; after all, they had been on the course for some weeks already. B. did not understand this and refused to do any work that was below the level of her peers. When given the work above her current level, she became disruptive in class due to the fact that she was unable to do the work.
B. had previous bad educational experiences which had, in part, led to her exclusion from school. She had not been in education since the age of 11 and so her basic skills were poor.
B. did not have any further learning difficulties other than her social and emotional barriers to learning and so strategies to motivate her have had to be developed. As with J. differentiation has to be applied to outcomes as well as the work that is devised for B. When work was set for B, it soon became apparent that she responded well to praise when she had completed tasks well. Often she would rush to have her work marked before continuing with other tasks. B. also responded well to kinaesthetic learning styles and she enjoyed games such as bingo and card games. It became obvious that she was deeply satisfied by the feedback she received and that this provided her motivation.
Behavioural theory states that when a stimulus is applied a correct response should be rewarded and incorrect responses should be discouraged. Thorndike's “Law of Effect”, would seem to apply here where the satisfaction that a reward brings increases the desire to do the same again in future (Child, 2007, p.164).
Although it may be already difficult and time consuming to develop lessons for these groups any problems are exacerbated by the fact that the learners may arrive and leave at any time during the roll-on/roll-off programme. This means that it is essential that diagnostic assessments are completed immediately to ascertain skill levels, learning styles and any learning difficulties or disabilities. O'Brien and Guiney point out that “Sometimes teaching difficulties are manipulated and become identified as learning difficulties” (O'Brien and Guiney, 2001, p.20). This should not be allowed to happen.
The development of intrinsic motivation within learners is a target for all teachers but it cannot always be achieved when students are not receptive to learning. Extrinsic motivation is often a major part of the cycle and should be used accordingly.
It can be seen that there is a definite requirement for differentiation in a group that has many learners at differing levels and abilities. It is extremely difficult to try to teach such a group and maintain motivation if the tasks are not adapted for individual learners and their educational needs.
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