Applying Lorna Shires’s ‘Scaffolding by novice and expert teachers: the difference’ to the classroom

by senorcordero

At my current school, I have two quite distinct roles. Firstly, I am a Second in Faculty and a Head of Key Stage (we adopt Head of Key Stages instead of Heads of Departments) – which see me focus on curriculum and pedagogical matters in Modern Foreign Languages.

Secondly, I am a school-wide Lead Practitioner, with an emphasis on the development of trainee teachers. When it comes to staff development, I feel like in the second role it is easier to quantify what staff development in the classroom looks like as I am constantly focused on the trajectory of progress of student teachers towards their awarding of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), through the use of measurement against the Teachers’ Standards. The former role is slightly different. We have an open-door policy; we have regular drop-in observations that take place every 2-3 weeks and a teacher development system based observation feedback that is centred on several habits we believe underpin quality teaching. In my faculty there are staff of varying experience – from newly qualified teachers (NQTs), to members of the senior leadership team, right up to someone who has sat on government advisory panels. I used to firmly believe it was experience and time in the classroom, alongside quality feedback, that developed those that I deemed to be novices (what I considered to be those at an early stage in their career) into experts. Having read Lorna Shires’s article – I was forced to question myself. Is it mere length of time in the classroom alone and that led to someone becoming an expert teacher? Or is there more to play than just length of time?

Shires looks explores several different ways in which experts can be defined. One explanation, offered by Hattie (2003) suggests that a mixture of factors, including outcomes, reputation, qualifications and experience define the term expert teacher. She adds to this by referring to Berliner’s (2004) stage levels in the novice to expert approach to describe different behaviours by expert and novice teachers. But rather than focus on behaviours and on length of time in the classroom, experience and reputation as a practitioner, Shires turns the attention to the fact that expert teachers have long term aims for their students that go beyond the individual lesson. Going back to looking at the question of staff progress in my faculty rather than as an ITT co-ordinator, this has changed my thinking. Am I and my team thinking long term? How do I get us all to think in the long term about pupil progress and development in language learning, rather than merely on a lesson-by-lesson basis? 

Shires suggests 5 core values that matter to expert teachers, which come together to form subject agency. Subject agency, she argues, consists of: 

  • The ability of students to do something with the knowledge of subject for themselves.
  • The importance of the process of grappling with and piecing together key ideas from the subject 
  • The stripping back key concepts, then layering up with additional detail and precision later on.
  • The offering of a metacommentary throughout the lesson that has the aim of ensuring that students trust the teachers to take them through the process of learning something new.
  • The importance of student appreciation and love of the subject, and the appreciation of the value that adds to their lives

What this means to me as a classroom practitioner is the following:

  • The liberation of students to be creative with subject knowledge and apply it to a variety of circumstances.
  • The importance of an ever-present level of challenge, which is not pitched too high and requires students to bring together new knowledge and create links with prior knowledge.
  • The ability to unpick difficult concepts, such as tenses; introduce them early in a more basic way and build on them later on to add complexity.
  • Showing my passion and love of languages and travel to implore my students to travel, question and experience culture in the future

This concept of subject agency is something I want to build and develop – firstly for myself and to ensure the students in my care get the best out of me that they can; and also, for my staff so that it takes their practice to the next level. To do this, I will be looking at task design – not just my own but also that of colleagues during observation, in order to promote the 5 core values that matter to expert teacher. Some of these I already do, some of these my team already do and here’s a few examples from our practice that fit the core values of subject agency.

1. The ability of students to do something with the knowledge of the subject for themselves.

Sometimes in lesson time, we touch on something that students particularly feel passionate about. More often than not this happens at A Level, where the content that has to be delivered better marries itself to the real world. However, how often do we stop to have a discussion in the target language at GCSE level about veganism? It comes up on the curriculum, students know food vocabulary – so why not provide them with the opportunity to discuss and argue for and against it? 

Last year, it emerged during a lesson that one of my classes was very polarised with regards to veganism, vegetarianism and pescatarianism. To capitalise on this interest, I set the class up with the vocabulary they needed to debate and built on the prior knowledge of food. Having divided the class into groups for and against and giving them time to work in groups to get their ideas together, each member of the group had to present for 1 minute on their reason whether they were in favour or against veganism. The debate that followed was heated (in a good way!) and students were using the knowledge of the subject to discuss something they were very passionate about, enthusing them in the subject. 

Elsewhere, describing photographs and adverts are regular place in the faculty. By this, I am not talking about the routine photographs that exam boards show of generic people in generic situations; rather staff are using their own photographs with cultural content, such as trying chicharrones in Cuba or eating grasshoppers in Mexico, in order to generate interest amongst students. Students are so divided in their reactions to eating tiny grasshoppers and it sees them genuinely want to use the language to put across their own opinion and express their disgust or intrigue! 

Authentic resources and experiences – asking students to describe a tapas bar in Bilbao with me buying food/una caña

2. Grappling and piecing together key ideas from the subject.

I think the part where students grapple with subject matter the most and have to piece it back together is during verb tests. In the past, I used to simply get students to conjugate verbs in a singular tense that was the subject of a homework test, such as the preterite tense in Spanish. What I realised was I was taking one step forward with one tense, and two steps backwards with the ones that I had previously covered as I wasn’t revisiting them and making them the subject of scrutiny during homework tests. When the new GCSE specification came out, I decided that this needed to change.

The imperfect, preterite, perfect and plusperfect tenses all make up a part of the past time frame in Spanish. Each one is used in its own unique way and has its own paradigm. Students need to know both, and I want my students to be proficient in their uses, so as to be ready for A Level and to get the full story. The first thing I did was to create a knowledge organiser for each tense, detailing the translation into English, the individual uses and the formation. These were sent home to be rote learned. Nothing new really to before, apart from with maybe a slightly more formal formatting.

Where the real change came, and the grappling with and piecing together of key ideas, was the way in which I tested the tenses. Multiple tenses would now feature in tests, along with space to record answers. But it wasn’t the case of simply specifying the person of the verb and the tense that the verb had to be conjugated into; the stabilisers were taken off so that students saw an English sentence, such as ‘I have played’, were given the infinitive and had to: firstly, select the appropriate tense, and then conjugate the verb in accordance to the tense. At first, there were retests galore, but I stuck with it and the accuracy of writing has improved drastically. If I didn’t believe that students needed to grapple and analyse key ideas and tenses carefully, this level of accuracy and manipulation would arguably never be as good.

The new-style verb test – mixing tenses and forcing students to really think about translation, rather than providing the tense students are required to use.

3. Stripping back key concepts and layering them up with additional detail and precision later on.

This is one thing I am aiming to push this year. I do it as it is but I want to make it more planned for. When I set marking targets, I ask students to use structures I prescribe to them, such as ‘cuando sea mayor/cuando tenga 18 años’ but unless it is a top set group, I rarely explain to the class that when cuando is used in reference to the future, you follow it with a verb in the present subjunctive. The present subjunctive is a very alien concept to an English speaker, so rather than explain it to most groups, I take the short cut of explaining it’s a set expression. This is something I need to work on and push, especially with middling groups in order to further their knowledge. I have stripped back the content but need to build it up and take the opportunity to do so more often. 

Elsewhere, in order to help students tackle their first 90-word or 150-word piece of writing, staff are introducing writing strips to help students with pointers, before gradually removing them when students are ready to have a go on their own. This allows students to write at extended lengths and really get used to it before they go it on their own in a mock exam, for example. 

Stripping down concepts – what are the basic ingredients for a 40-word essay?

4. The importance of student appreciation and love of the subject, and the appreciation of the value it adds to their lives.

This is something I hope to work on in the coming year. One thing that I have implemented to get students to appreciate and love languages is the inclusion of ‘authentic materials’ on the scheme of work – with the intention of putting authentic materials at the forefront of importance by having it on a document central to the operation of the faculty. Staff can add resources they find to this folder. Each folder marries neatly with the main subject content to be taught with each unit, in order to enhance and embellish the lesson they were going to initially deliver. My hope is that it creates some enthusiasm and interest in what life is like in another Hispanic or Francophone country; such as dealing with earthquake threats in Mexico City through to dealing with having to save water in Spain due to desertification – expanding their cultural awareness.

 I think the biggest opportunity for this core value to be met is through enrichment outside of the regular curriculum, with trips abroad and restaurant trips. With Covid, however, any trips abroad are going to be difficult. Ways in which I can see this being exploited are through seizing opportunities during enrichment weeks, such as watching films, looking at artwork or countries that maybe aren’t touched on as much in the current schemes of work in order to foster an interest and to promote investigation into these countries. 

These are some examples in my practice and that of others in the faculty, but my overall hope is that focusing on subject agency and long term objectives for our students; making them an explicit conversation topic in feedback, as well as during other opportunities such as during CPD time, will hopefully push staff development on so as to promote growth and development into expert teachers. 

Berliner, D (2004) Describing the behaviour and documenting the accomplishment os of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society 24: 200-212.

 Hattie, J (2003) Teachers make a difference What is the research evidence? In: Building teacher quality: What does the research tell us? ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, Australia. October 2003. 

Shires, L (2020) Scaffolding by novice and expert teachers: The difference. In: Impact 10: 32-33.