We sat down with Fiona Jackson, Literacy Consultant, to discuss how teachers can develop a more responsive approach to their practice and what this might look like in the classroom.
In recent times, educators have spoken at length about differentiated instruction - which involves responding specifically, and with flexibility, to what students know. After speaking with Literacy Consultant, Fiona Jackson, it’s clear that differentiated instruction is only one part of the teaching equation.
Another perhaps less explored practice is responsive teaching, which intersects with differentiated instruction, but goes further to address the academic and personal needs of students. Here are five ways you can become a more responsive educator.
1. Gather data through ongoing assessment
“In my opinion, responsive teaching starts with assessment. You need to know your students’ strengths and areas for improvement. This is also where differentiated instruction starts and where the two practices overlap.” says Jackson.
Generally speaking, schools collect significant amounts of data through NAPLAN testing.
“One of reasons schools seek me out is because their NAPLAN results are not where they want them to be. They’re not seeing the growth they would like to see.” says Jackson. Jackson believes that the timing of NAPLAN testing is the issue here: years three, five, and seven. She explains that student growth can often plateau between years three and five, while in year seven they’re in secondary school: a whole new setting with multiple teachers and a brand new routine. It seems that these year levels are not always conducive to good test results.
“Schools almost need to do another NAPLAN at the end of year six because the 12-18 months from the middle of year five to the end of year six can have a huge impact on a child’s development. If I were a principal I would be wanting to know that data.” says Jackson.
"Low stakes continuous "formative" style of assessment at key transition points."
She also points out that the area of writing is often the biggest teaching challenge for schools. Students in year three are usually at the beginning of their authorial development and simply need more experience. So in this case having annotated samples of writing over their primary years is a great indicator of growth.
NAPLAN aside, Jackson says that ideally, schools would support teachers in the gathering of data. Not just through summative testing, but formative testing too - frequent, interactive assessments of student progress and understanding, that allow teachers to identify learning needs and adjust their instruction.
“If you want to be a responsive teacher then assessment gathering needs to be ongoing, with schools encouraging teachers to respond at the student’s level of development rather than having a system which promotes teachers teaching to the test. Assessment must have the primary purpose of informing us about our students’ achievements so we can have responsive teaching.” says Jackson. “Because quite simply, student development is constantly changing.”
2. Get to know your students outside of their academic capabilities
“Responsive teaching is certainly built on knowing your students academically, but it’s about knowing them on a personal level too.” says Jackson. “That’s what makes it more effective than differentiated instruction.”
She describes a situation she encountered in an EALD classroom during one of her coaching rounds.
“I was helping a boy who’d chosen a fabulous book that I immediately knew would be too difficult for him. So I started a conversation about the book to see where it would go. He ended up asking very insightful questions. This enabled me to provide a lot of background about the book and ultimately, I told him to try the text even though it was challenging.”
Jackson explains that she knew the text was difficult, but she also knew that the boy was usually difficult to engage: the fact that he was showing interest was a good start. For that reason, rather than dissuade him, she used her time with him to simply talk and answer questions. She chose this approach because she also knew the boy well enough to understand that relationships are important to him.
The idea here is, when you know more about a child than just their grades, you unlock more ways of addressing their needs and subsequently moving them forward in their learning.
3. Embrace agility
“Teacher agility refers to the way a teacher ‘reads’ and ‘responds’ in the classroom – making changes to their lesson plan when something isn’t working, or dropping in on conversations between students.” explains Jackson. She uses another example to highlight her point.
“One day I was watching a prep teacher model ‘chunking’ – a strategy often used when teaching children to read. You start with a single sound, and then move into grouping sounds.” says Jackson.
She explains that in this instance the teacher was ‘chunking’ the word ‘unexpectedly’ – and Jackson could see it wasn’t getting through to students.
“I respectfully stopped the teacher and turned to the students to ask if any of them knew what the word actually meant. They didn’t. I then asked where they had first heard the word. It turns out they had encountered it while reading Possum Magic.” says Jackson.
Together with the preps, she ended up finding the sentence in which they had first encountered ‘unexpectedly’. This gave them the context and meaning they needed for chunking to work. And that, according to Jackson is teacher agility giving way to responsive teaching.
“It’s the process of responding to what is happening in front of me and changing direction when something isn’t working to meet the students at their point of need.” she says.
4. Focus on classroom management
“When I’m sitting in on a lesson and I see students get their book boxes, take out their books, engage with their books and with each other, then I know their teacher has done A LOT of hard work to make that happen.” says Jackson.
The “hard work” Jackson is referring to is classroom management – and as a teaching coach, she often inherits another teacher’s classroom management. If it’s not at the level it needs to be, her job becomes much harder.
“Ultimately, you can’t talk responsive teaching until you’ve talked classroom management.” says Jackson.
Evidently, you can’t talk ‘learning’ either. In a comprehensive literature review conducted in 1993, researchers analysed over 300 official documents, reports, meta analyses and journal articles to produce a list of 228 variables affecting student achievement. Of all the variables, classroom management had the largest effect on student achievement.
This research backs Jackson’s point – but intuitively, it also makes sense. Students cannot learn, and teachers cannot teach, in a chaotic, poorly managed classroom.
“Schools that value and employ student welfare staff and student support officers, together with providing high quality resources, are much more likely to provide a platform for responsive teaching.” says Jackson.
“If I taught the same lesson three times over the course of one week, every lesson would be different.” says Jackson.
In fact, when teachers see her running the same professional development workshop multiple times, it’s not uncommon for some of them to pick up on differences between her presentations. That’s just Jackson’s way of being reflective and therefore, responsive.
“You have to take on feedback. You have to reflect. The more you do it, the more responsive you can be. If you’re not reflecting, then chances are, you’re not really thinking about the purpose of your lessons.” says Jackson.
Speaking of purpose, Jackson never plans a lesson without it. When it comes to primary school classes, she begins by thinking about the children who need challenges and deeper, richer work. Then she plans her way down for the kids who need more scaffolding and those who need a lot of setting up before they begin.
Things don’t always go according to plan, though.
“I wish I could say that every lesson I taught was excellent. But it doesn’t work that way! Sometimes you plan a session and the text you selected might not engage children in the way you thought it would. Other times, children might just be having one of ‘those’ days. You just have to keep evaluating and taking that feedback on!” she says.
Looks can be deceiving
Jackson makes it clear that one-on-one time with each child in your class is imperative. As is small group work. At the same time, just because you do these things it doesn’t mean you’re being a responsive teacher.
“I think that a common misunderstanding among teachers is, if you’re doing a whole-class lesson, you’re not being responsive and conversely, if you’ve put children into small groups, that you are. But that’s almost like saying that just because you’ve had a child you’re a great parent.” says Jackson. “It’s just not that simple.”
For this reason, with her coaching, Jackson focuses on showing teachers how to be responsive at the whole-class level first. Then she models how and when to move into small group work.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is knowing the kids you have in front of you. Knowing their strengths, the areas they need to consolidate, and the goals we need to set collaboratively in order to know when we have achieved success.” says Jackson. “On top of that, knowing your students outside of their academic ability fosters personal relationships: a crucial ingredient for responsive teaching.”
Fiona Jackson has taught all primary school levels and is based at two Melbourne primary schools as an independent education consultant. Fiona provides coaching and mentoring in classrooms and after school professional development in these schools. Fiona has travelled throughout Australia providing professional development in both literacy and Inquiry Learning. Teachers appreciate that Fiona's sessions are practical and aim to provide improved motivation and engagement for teachers and students alike. In addition to her training role Fiona is the co-author of eight comprehension resources. Fiona is passionate about encouraging students to be independent learners with a passion for reading great literature and asking lots of questions!