Newsletter 160 - NEEDU - Schools That Work II - Teaching Strategies
BEST PRACTICE 6.2—Teaching strategies: Teachers use effective and empirically-tested teaching strategies to engage learners in a lesson, develop critical thinking skills, and keep learners on task. Most scholars agree that effective leadership is among the most important characteristics of effective schools, equally important is effective teaching. Put differently, school leadership matters as much as teacher quality. Learner achievement is affected not only by what children learn, but how they learn it. Teachers help their learners engage in their lessons and other educational tasks by varying their teaching methods, including the empirically-tested techniques.
TEACHER COLLABORATION: Teachers work together in different way to improve teaching strategies practice and improve learner performance. Teacher collaboration, in schools that reported it works, ranges from teachers working together in an informal, unplanned way to the implementation of more formal collaborative approaches, such as professional learning communities (PLCs). Teachers in these schools believe that learners could achieve at high levels, and saw working together to implement the curriculum as a strategy to improve their teaching practice and, at the same time, improve learner performance.
Five types of collaboration were identified in the high-performing schools: joint planning, team teaching, teacher observation, sharing ideas and good practices (or reflection sessions), and crosscurricula collaboration.
Team teaching is perceived among teachers as more helpful and extensive. There is strong teamwork among teachers teaching the same subject in Grade 12. Everybody is involved and connected to each other. Teachers work together to share the workload instead of doubling their efforts.
Different schools use different approaches to team-teaching. These include subject-splitting, interphase teaching and joint planning but separate teaching. Each approach is briefly discussed below.
· ‘Subject splitting’: One common team-teaching strategy that teachers teaching the same subject in Grade 12 use is ‘subject splitting.’ Subject splitting includes two types: splitting by topic or chapter and splitting by the NSC examination paper. These are briefly discussed below:
ü Splitting by concept/topic/chapter: Teachers teaching the same subject assign one another chapters or topics to teach, to match their strengths. Instead of teaching the whole subject, they specialise in specific chapters or topics.
ü Splitting by the NSC examination papers: In other schools, teachers split the subjects according to how they are structured in the NSC examination.
· Inter-phase teaching: In some schools, team teaching is not limited to teachers teaching Grade
12. Instead, all teachers teaching the same subject in different grades form part of the team. They plan together so that all teachers are aware of curriculum expectations in different grades. In these schools, it is a common practice that a teacher teaching in the lower grades is asked to teach a topic or a concept in Grade 12 because of the expertise they have. Similarly, a Grade 12 teacher is sometimes called upon to teach a topic in a lower grade.
· Joint planning but separate teaching: An approach that some schools use is planning together but teaching separately in their own classes.
Schools have “taken the doors off the classroom” through their collaborative efforts. All schools that practice this type of collaboration maintain an open-door policy where teachers go in and out of each other’s classrooms without offending anyone and without making teachers feel as though they are being violated. This practice is not always greeted with open arms in other schools. Teachers in this study acknowledge that, while in the past teachers were relatively successful working in isolation and viewed teacher observation as an invasion of their pedagogy and a waste of time, teacher peer-observation is now the culture in these schools. It is an accepted norm and culture in these schools that teachers observe their colleagues teach. It is an approach that has become a strong vehicle for improving teaching and learning. Teacher collaboration, through teacher peer observation, is directed toward building a professional, collegial staff that examines best practices.
SHARING IDEAS AND GOOD PRACTICES
Teachers are open to sharing during the departmental curriculum reflection sessions, and they also collaborate informally. A professional culture where teachers are willing to share, support, and explore together exists in many high-performing schools. Such culture also enables teachers to engage in a professional dialogue to evaluate and modify teaching strategies and programmes.
CROSS-CURRICULA COLLABORATION While in most schools teacher collaboration is limited to teachers within a school teaching the same subject in the same grade, there are few cases of strong teamwork among teachers across different grades and subject areas, i.e. interdisciplinary collaboration. In a striking example of collaboration in some schools, the teachers in Mathematics, Physical Science and Economics collaborate to teach certain topics.
LOOPING (MOVING UP WITH LEARNERS): Teachers spend two or more years teaching the same group of learners. Teachers in some schools reported that teaching the same group of learners for more than one school year as they move up in different grades enhances teaching and learning. This practice, which is often called looping, is embraced by teachers, because they understand its benefits. Thirty percent of schools described how they implement looping effectively and reap most benefits to enhance learning.
In these schools, looping has been integrated as a regular procedure. It has become normal for teachers to spend more than one year with the same group of learners.
ADDITIONAL TIME WITH THE SAME COHORT
One benefit of looping expressed by schools that work is that it saves time, which teachers use for different purposes including the following:
· Because teachers teach the same group of learners year after year for two or more years, “getting-to- know-you” time becomes virtually unnecessary during the second year and subsequent years. Time is not lost learning a new set of names and figuring out exactly what they learned the previous year.
The context of looping results in improved relationships among teachers, learners and parents. These
relationships are briefly discussed below.
Teacher-to-learner relationship: Teachers describe how well they get to know their learners and how they have built up a rapport over the years. A level of trust between teachers and learners has been built up over time. As one learner observes, “teachers who teach us in Grade 12 have been teaching us since Grade 10; they are our second-parents now”. Echoing the same sentiments about how teachers and learners have developed a high level of caring and respect in classrooms, another learner.
Teacher-to-parent relationship: Not only do teachers credit looping for building rapport with learners, they also say it enables them to know their learners’ parents very well. Teachers rely on parents to “do the right things” at home to support their [teachers’] work in class. This is why these teachers value and cherish a good relationship with parents because they need them to make sure that their children do their homework, study, get them to class on time and make sure that they attend extra classes. Teachers report that because of looping, parents know the way they work, including what to generally expect during the year. Teachers feel that the rapport that has been built over time makes parents feel comfortable talking with teachers and sending questions about assignments or marks learners get, which could have been more complicated if parents had to adjust to new teachers’ completely different ways of working each year. Better rapport between parents and teachers is said to have resulted in more active parent involvement and therefore higher levels of learner achievement.
Benefits of developing relationships: Looping schools also report that significant relationships have a direct impact on learning. This is because the relationships created during the first year of the looping cycle cause the second year of the loop to flow in a smoother fashion. Unlike in non-looping schools where teachers have to establish routines and procedures for almost everything at the beginning of the year, in looping schools teachers have observed that teaching time is not wasted. Because learners know the routines for everything from class rules to resolving conflicts with one another, schools identify two main benefits of looping: discipline issues are greatly minimised and classroom management improves significantly.
UNDERSTANDING LEARNER NEEDS
Having taught the same subjects to the same group of learners over time, teachers say they know their needs, strengths, interests, personalities and how they learn best. “In other schools, often, when teachers only start to figure out their learners’ needs and how best to address them, off they go into a new class with new teachers in the following year”. Teachers in looping schools say this is the least of their challenges. In these schools, teachers report that they know their learners’ strengths and general weaknesses right from the first day of a new school year. They know where their learners started from, the progressions they have made and goals on which they still need to work. They know the skills that each learner struggled with the year before, as well as tasks in which they usually excel; and so, no time is wasted at the beginning of the year.
CUSTOMISED LEARNER SUPPORT
Because teachers, having looped understand learners’ needs better and so they are able to differentiate more effectively in different ways—by academic needs, learners’ learning styles, and learner interests.
When they loop, teachers feel that they are afforded another opportunity to improve on what they did not do as well the first year. Thus, they can focus on topics and skills that learners are struggling with and that they [teachers] did not emphasize enough the previous year.
BEST PRACTICE 6.2C—DIFFERENTIATED INSTRUCTION STRATEGIES: Teachers use differentiated teaching methods to reach learners of a wide range of abilities Teachers are often given the additional challenge of differentiating teaching for learners with a wide range of abilities and varying exceptionalities.
All classrooms in schools in the present study had learners with a varying degree of diversity. Learners in the same classroom differ in respect of cognitive abilities, culture, language, prior knowledge, and learning styles or preferences. Faced with such diversity, schools provide various kinds of scaffolding through differentiated instruction to help all Grade 12 learners at different levels to learn.
HETEROGENEOUS AND HOMOGENOUS GROUPINGS
The most prevalent grouping is heterogeneous mixed-ability groups where lower achievers are taught the same but differentiated content from that taught to higher achievers.
DIFFERENTIATING BY CONTENT
Teachers in some schools differentiate their teaching by adjusting the content, including knowledge, concepts, and skills that learners need to learn. These teachers use a variety of ways to explore the content to enable all learners to connect with it. To differentiate the content teachers:
· Set different tasks for learners of different abilities. When presenting a concept or topic in class, teachers are guided by a six-level Bloom’s taxonomy or other taxonomies to differentiate content for different groups of learners. Teachers design activities in such a way that struggling learners are given tasks on the lower levels of the taxonomy (i.e. remembering and understanding).
Learners would then progress through other levels to more challenging levels of the taxonomy so that a learner who has mastered a concept completes activities at the highest levels of the taxonomy namely, evaluation and synthesis.
· Meet all learners’ learning styles by using various delivery formats such as video, print media, audio, WhatsApp or other technologies.
DIFFERENTIATING BY PROCESS
Differentiation by process is probably the most common and most regularly used form of differentiation in the schools in our sample. While the emphasis in the differentiation by content is on the content that the teacher has to adapt to meet all learners’ needs, in this type of differentiation the focus shifts to the process that teacher has to adapt to present the content to learners of different abilities. Teachers in the present study use a variety of instructional strategies to present the same lesson to all learners at varying levels of difficulty based on two important factors: ability of each leaner and his or her learning style. The range of strategies that teachers in high-performing schools use to deliver lessons at varying levels of difficulty includes the following. They
· Vary presentation skills so that detailed explanations in simple language are given to struggling learners while quick or more sophisticated dialogue is reserved for high-performing learners.
· Augment learning and teaching time in the classroom by providing extra classes in the morning, during break, in the afternoon, during week-ends or holidays
· Adjust the pace of learning by providing additional time and support for struggling learners to complete a task and allocating more challenging extension tasks to the more advanced learners, without holding them back to the pace of the less able ones.
· Encourage learner peer-support to allow learners to help one another
· Deliver a lesson using a wide spectrum of materials and means that appeal to different learning styles in order to attain a single learning outcome. These materials and means include but are not limited to manipulatives, visual aids, charts, audiotapes and other hands-on supports.
DIFFERENTIATING BY PRODUCT
Differentiation by outcome is defined as a technique whereby all learners undertake the same task but a variety of results is expected and acceptable. The product is what a learner creates at the end of the lesson to demonstrate the mastery of the content (Weselby, 2014). Teachers in the present study use different forms of assessment to enable learners to show mastery of an educational concept. Tests are the most commonly used form of assessment. However, teachers use other forms such as projects, reports and other activities. Teachers use formative assessment to identify learners who need help and to monitor learners’ progress after a teacher has differentiated instruction by process (as described above). Learners are assessed on an on-going basis in order to profile them with a view to identifying areas for improvement, reflect and continuously adjust methods of differentiation (content, process, product and learning environment) to ensure learning needs continue to be met.
DIFFERENTIATING BY LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Few schools describe how they adjust the learning environment to support both individual and group work. Examples of differentiating the environment include furniture arrangement, sitting arrangement and routines that allow learners to get help when teachers are busy with other learners and cannot help them immediately. In one school, creating a supportive learning environment meant adjusting learners’ seating arrangement.
BEST PRACTICE 6.2D—CO-OPERATIVE LEARNING (LEARNER PEER-SUPPORT): Learners work together and support one another for a mutual benefit Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991) define co-operative learning as the instructional use of small groups so that learners work together to maximize their own and each other's learning. Some schools in this study share a belief that learners could and should help one another do well at school (cooperative learning) because they care deeply about what their peers think. As one teacher notes, “learners would do anything to live up to their peers’ expectations. Often what we say and think comes second.”
CO-OPERATIVE LEARNING APPROACHES
While all schools share a common purpose for using co-operative learning—i.e. learning together so that every learner subsequently can gain greater individual competency—they differ in their approach in the following respects:
· Types of co-operative groups: In some schools, learner co-operative groups are organised by teachers, while in other schools, co-operative groups are initiated by and controlled by learners with little or no teacher participation.
· Nature of peer programmes: Most schools prefer heterogeneous groups than homogeneous groups because they strongly believe that different learners have more to learn from each other.
In each co-operative group (whether heterogeneous a homogeneous), there is a mentor and a mentee or mentees. Different schools in this study use one or all forms of mentor-mentee relationships briefly discussed below:
ü Older learner-younger learner peer support (cross age/grade support):
In this mentor-mentee peer relationship, learners are not on the same or equal footing. An older learner, for example, in a senior grade (often Grade 12) mentors a younger learner or a group of learners in the lower grades (Grade 8 to 11) in a structured environment sanctioned by teachers.
ü Academically stronger learner-weaker learner peer support (heterogeneous peer support):
This is another mentor-mentee peer relationship where, in some schools, a learner mentors another learner because the mentor possesses more “superior knowledge” than the learner he or she mentors.
ü Academically strong learner-academically strong learner peer support (homogeneous peer support):
Here, schools encourage peer support between two learners or a group of learners who are on the same footing academically. That is, both learners and a group of learners are high performers who, instead of competing between themselves to achieve better marks, they work together co-operatively for a mutual benefit, i.e. to provide growth and learning opportunities for both mentors and mentees.
· Setting up a learner-peer support programme: When schools embark on a peer tutoring system, it is important to set up systems to ensure that the relationships work to the benefit of all learners. When setting up peer tutoring systems, schools that work:
ü Define roles and responsibilities of mentors and mentees: A limited number of schools have well-defined roles for mentors and mentees in a peer mentoring relationship. In most cases, mentors and mentees operate haphazardly without any defined roles and ground rules:
ü Train peer-mentors: Some schools train mentors to ensure that they take a developmental approach to working with their mentees to decrease the likelihood of mentors engaging in negative behaviour or causing harm to mentees, whether intentionally or not.
ü Recruit mentors: In all schools practicing co-operative learning, peer mentors are recruited from student populations within the schools, although there are few cases where schools invite former learners (alumni) to provide occasional peer support to learners. The only criterion all schools use to choose mentors is good academic performance, i.e. learners with strong abilities in a particular subject area.
ü Recruit mentees: Low performing or struggling learners are identified as the target population that teachers believe would benefit most from having peers, rather than teachers, as mentors.
ü Match mentors and mentees: Few schools have specific procedures for matching mentors and mentees. Low performing or struggling learners are simply assigned to learner with a good academic performance.
ü Consider the size of groups: The number of learners in a group ranges between one mentor to one mentee (1:1) to one mentor to five mentees (1:5). One tutor is responsible for two learners. In their model of co-operative learning Johnson, Johnson and Smith (1991) identified five essential elements or pillars of co-operative learning: Positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive interaction, interpersonal skills, and group processing. The extent to which highperforming schools in this study use co-operative learning is consistent with these research-tested pillars of co-operative learning. Each pillar is briefly discussed below.
Positive interdependence is linking students together so one cannot succeed unless all group members succeed. What differentiates schools in the current study from others is practices that help learners take ownership and responsibility for their own academic success. Teachers in this study structure co-operative groups so that learners are less competitive but support one another. One teacher provides a good reason why his school follows this approach.
Teachers use different strategies to encourage learners in their co-operative groups to learn from each other. They do the following:
· Assign work to be done in co-operative groups such as homework, revision of work done in class and practising past exam papers.
· Give every member of the co-operative group opportunities to teach a skill or a concept they understood better than others to their peers.
· Give learners a problem-solving assignment, an investigation or a project to be accomplished by a co-operative group (where each group member is assigned specific roles) and requiring it to produce a group product, solution or a consensus answer.
· Assign the same marks or points for any piece of work completed by each member of the cooperative group;
· Assign a task to a co-operative group that must be done sequentially where one group member must first complete his or her task before the next task could be completed by another group member; and
· Give learners in their co-operative groups past NSC exam papers and require them to answer different questions as a group. (Preparing for the NSC exam is discussed in Best Practice 6.5)
Individual accountability exists when the performance of each individual learner is assessed and the results are given back to the group and the individual in order to ascertain who needs more assistance, support, and encouragement in learning (Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1991). In co-operative groups, each individual learner is held accountable for his or her academic performance and learning. Teachers hold individual learners in a co-operative group accountable for their performance by assessing learners and assigning a score for the whole group (a group average).
Assertions from learners suggest stronger effects of individual accountability exerted by collaborative
groups than that exerted by teachers.
Johnson, Johnson and Smith (1991) define promotive interaction as a set of characteristics in the task or learning activity that requires ongoing conversation, dialogue, exchange, and support. Teachers give learners skills to help them engage in challenging academic work and build learners’ confidence and understanding of how they could take responsibility for their own academic success. Among other things, teachers encourage learners to promote each other's learning, thereby creating interpersonal dynamics among learners.
In their co-operative groups, learners report that they work together and promote each other's success by sharing resources and helping, supporting, encouraging, and applauding each other's efforts to learn and achieve. Learners also said they help each other to master a concept or a skill learnt in class. “Discussions allow us to bond while teaching one another.” Teachers assign each group different activities. Learners in their co-operative groups are expected to assist each other to complete a group activity because the final product would depend on contributions from all group members. A widely used group activity is asking learners to form individual responses to a question focused on a particular concept and to reach consensus on an answer as a team. Another common group task is asking teams to generate possible applications of a concept introduced in class.
Teachers build student ownership by promoting self-efficacy and scaffold learning of both academic and social behaviours to guide them in assuming ownership and responsibility for their own learning. Thus, when selecting mentors, some schools train them on, among other things, interpersonal skills. In addition to academic performance, other criteria that are considered for choosing a mentor include social and interpersonal skills. Teachers teach teamwork skills, how to provide effective leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication, and conflict-management.
The success of co-operative groups is attributed to learners’ knowledge of procedures and skills for managing conflicts constructively.
Group processing is careful analysis of how members are working together. Some schools assess how effectively learner groupings are functioning, achieving their goals and maintaining effective working relationships. Teachers use different approaches to accomplish this. In the present study, teachers:
· Use the analysis of continuous assessment (formal or informal) to evaluate how well individual learners in a co-operative group perform and whether a co-operative group has achieved its goals.
· Check randomly, e.g. randomly calling on specific learners to give an explanation after talking about the question or problem in a group
· Ask individual learners to demonstrate a skill (e.g., to demonstrate competency with specific experimental skills in a laboratory) that a co-operative group was assigned to practise.
BEST PRACTICE 6.2E—MAKING SUBJECTS MORE INTERESTING AND RELEVANT: Teachers use different strategies to engage learners in a lesson, develop critical thinking skills, and keep learners on task. One of the most pressing challenges confronting good teachers on a daily basis in their classes is finding ways to keep learners engaged and interested in their lessons. Teachers often grapple with one pertinent question in their classes: Do I simply go through all of the topics to complete the syllabus but leave my learners confused, bored and unmotivated, or do I spend some time getting them excited about my lesson?
Having recognized that learners learn better when they find their classes more interesting and personally relevant, teachers in the high-performing schools in the present study make concerted efforts to ensure that instruction is engaging for learners and that its relevance and rigour is increased. Some schools in this study provide a range of approaches they use to make their lessons interesting and relevant to their learners. These approaches include making a subject meaningful; starting a lesson with an interesting, real-life problem; starting a lesson with concrete examples; using technology to do the drudge work; and engaging learners in a lesson through creativity and ownership.
Each approach is discussed further.
MAKING A SUBJECT MEANINGFUL
Often when learners cannot see the relevance of what they have to learn in their daily lives, in frustration they ask questions such as: "Why do we have to learn this?" “Why is this subject necessary anyway?” Many teachers usually use expressions such as, “It’s in the exam,” “Because the government says so;” or worse, “Because it’s good for you” to respond to these reasonable questions. In contrast to this, teachers in the high-performing schools understand that many learners do not perform well not necessarily because they are not capable but because “they are not interested in the subject and are not motivated to succeed because they cannot find meaning in what they are learning at school.”
Teachers in this study have good responses beyond, “It’s in the exam.” In their efforts to make their subjects meaningful, teachers are pro-active in planning and preparing their lessons so that learners could see the relevance of what they were learning in every lesson. These teachers present their lessons in a manner that does not give learners reasons to ask, “But why do we have to learn this?"
Amongst other things, these teachers use highly engaging teaching techniques that their learners find more relevant and meaningful. These techniques include hands-on activities, cross-curricula linkages (subject integration) and individualized instruction that meet the needs of different types of learners.
Teachers consistently use research to find out where and how learners would use or apply each topic they teach (particularly in more abstract subjects). For example, Mathematics teachers use actual examples from other subjects to show learners how mathematical concepts can be applied. That is, through subject integration, teachers show learners how a concept in Mathematics can find application when solving a problem in Physical Science, Geography, Economics, etc.
STARTING WITH CONCRETE EXAMPLES
Teachers describe how they start their lessons with concrete examples—leaving the abstract concepts for later. For example, a Mathematics teacher said instead of starting each topic with a formula, she would begin with concrete examples of the problems that can be solved using that concept in Mathematics. Then, she would help the learners see how the mathematical theory can help to solve such problems by showing them “the thinking behind the solution.” Large parts of our country are rural. Finding practical and local examples in Physical Science, for example, that learners can identify with can be challenging for many teachers who teach in these areas. So, when teachers say “imagine….,” learners often find it hard to imagine what teachers are talking about due to lack of concrete experience with that concept. In these circumstances, teachers in the current study first research their environment as part of lesson preparation before presenting a lesson to find out what is available within the reach of their learners that they could use in class as concrete examples. Teachers use alternative visual reminders, in the absence of any good local examples, such as diagrams, images and pictures from different sources as ways to connect concepts visually for learners.
USING INTERESTING, REAL-WORD PROBLEMS
Teachers in the current study also make attempts to motivate the learners to enjoy what they are learning by helping learners to make connections between the concepts they are learning in class and the "real world". They research to find out how the concepts they teach in class could be applied in the real world. Relating class content to learners’ lives is important to these teachers because they strongly believe that when they create a localized real-world connection to what students are learning, “it will give them a greater understanding of why they need to learn it”. They feel they would lose credibility with their learners, when every time learners ask why they need to learn something, their [teachers’]. Such a response, teachers argue, causes learners “to continue to not be interested in what they are learning.” Different subject teachers describe how in their lesson introduction they pique curiosity with a news clipping, photograph, a short video, a diagram, or perhaps a joke. They find that this trigger outlines an interesting problem in their local area so learners can relate to it better. Referring back to various real-world problems as the learners learn different concepts in class help them to come to an “a-ha” moment when they see all the pieces come together—the point where abstractions and theory in class find expression in real-life applications. There could be no “a-ha” moment when a lesson, for example, starts with "here's the new formula for today, here's how you plug in values, here's the correct answer."
USING TECHNOLOGY TO DO THE DRUDGE WORK
While some schools in our sample have computer labs, how they use computers varied significantly. Without doubt, teachers said the use of technology enhances teaching and excites learners to enjoy what they are learning. In a few schools, teachers made every effort to make learners understand the concepts they teach in class before they referred them to technology to get another view on the concept. Teachers also guided learners how to use technology when confronted with different real problems. However, these teachers believe that technology, no matter how advanced, cannot replace good teaching. Instead, they saw technology as assistive devices that help learners understand concepts better but as one teacher observes “the best technology in the world in the hands of an incompetent teacher is useless.”
ENGAGING LEARNERS THROUGH CREATIVITY AND OWNERSHIP
Making a lesson interactive is what drives teachers in high-performing schools in the current study to move away from teaching practices that bore learners in class. These teachers have realised that a traditional classroom setting where the teacher is standing in the front of the classroom lecturing to learners as they sit passively listening—or worse, their minds wandering—was not working. “Learners switch off if you give a boring lecture,” one teacher observes, “because they are not interested in what we are teaching them,” he added. Consequently, teachers make their lessons interactive by getting learners involved in the lessons to make them interested in the content that they needed to learn. Teachers use different approaches to avoid talking at learners but encouraging their involvement. “Interactive lessons encourage creativity and generate a sense of ownership among learners. Learners are not passive recipients of knowledge but active participants in their own acquisition of such knowledge”.
BEST PRACTICE 6.2F—USING WHATSAPP TO ENHANCE TEACHING AND LEARNING: Teachers use WhatsApp as an effective tool for teaching. The results of the present study support the results of the study by Bouhnik and Deshen (2014) that WhatsApp can be an effective tool for mobile learning if properly managed. Schools using this tool in the present study reported similar social and academic benefits as noted in the Bouhnik and Deshen (2014) study, namely in-depth acquaintance with fellow students, the accessibility of learning materials, teacher availability, and the continuation of learning beyond class hours. Schools in the present study have different reasons for using WhatsApp. However, the principal and common objective for creating WhatsApp groups is to create a safe milieu where learners and their teachers could extend learning beyond the classroom borders. The main goals that motivated the creation of a WhatsApp group in our school sample are similar to those reported in the international literature (Chokri Barhoumi Taibah University, 2015; Bouhnik and Deshen, 2014). These goals or purposes are as follows:
· Communicating with learners to reach learners and extend in class teaching beyond the classroom walls
· Creating dialogue and encouraging sharing among learners
· Creating a secure learning platform for learners to access learning materials
· Enabling learners to learn any time and any place outside the classroom
· Nurturing the social atmosphere where learners share experiences and ask for advice.
These purposes are briefly discussed below:
COMMUNICATING WITH LEARNERS
Teacher participation: Teachers use WhatsApp to communicate with their learners for educational purposes. However, there are variations how teachers in different schools do this. There are variations with regard to the number of teachers who participate in WhatsApp groups, the nature of their participation and their level of participation. While in some schools almost all teachers in different departments have created WhatsApp groups to communicate with their learners, in others, communicating with learners through WhatsApp is limited to one or a handful of teachers. In some schools, other teachers were not even aware that their colleagues had created a WhatsApp group. They only learned about this during the focus group discussion with NEEDU researchers.
Level of participation: There were also differences among schools in respect of teachers’ level of participation in WhatsApp groups. Learner participation is either non-formal or more academic and formal. Learners express themselves in a non-formal manner particularly where teachers are quiet and passive observers in a WhatsApp group. Teachers who chose to be actively involved in a WhatsApp group as group managers do so because of a positive influence or effects they believe their participation has on learners. Positive effects of high teacher visibility, as teachers report, include a sense of security knowing that they have someone who they count on when they need help; learners treating one another with respect, exercising some restraints with regard to the improper use of language, and expressing themselves in relation to the content learned. While participation in some schools is haphazard, in others, teachers have a set of clear ground rules that all group participants have to abide by to stay in the group. Amongst other things, ground rules include respecting teachers’ private space and knowing when to send teachers a message and when to expect a response from a teacher. This relieves teachers from unreasonable learner demands and being swamped by too many learner messages. Teachers in some schools provide prompt responses to learners’ queries within the negotiated timeframes. Some teachers report that they decide to mute the alert signal when learners sent a message outside the negotiated timeframes. In that way, teachers do not feel bothered or that the group is a burden.
Nature of participation: The nature of teacher participation in the WhatsApp groups also varies in schools. Teachers within the same school and in different schools use WhatsApp for different reasons.
How teachers use WhatsApp to enhance teaching and learning
Schools that work use WhatsApp to:
· Post assignments, homework and revision question papers for learners;
· Help learners with their queries and questions which can potentially enhance the learning process;
· Address learners’ misconceptions and correct their mistakes immediately;
· Encourage and monitor learners quietly and letting them provide peer-support, share information and help one another; and
· Get to know learners better--what bothers them, what helps them, what are the areas in which they excel, who responds aggressively and who is balanced. No doubt, operating WhatsApp groups takes a lot of strength and determination as teachers invest time beyond their regular work hours. Active involvement by teachers in WhatsApp groups as group managers is another indication of teacher dedication and commitment.
CREATING DIALOGUE AND ENCOURAGING SHARING AMONG LEARNERS
In some schools, a WhatsApp group is initiated and is controlled by learners and only learners who are invited to the group could participate. Participation in the group is spontaneous and not directed by the teachers, it is non-formal and there are no rules of engagement. The use of WhatsApp is limited to one purpose, i.e. creating a dialogue between learners outside the classroom to work together to solve problems, share information, co-operate and work as a team, help each other, answer each other's questions, upload their work for the entire group to see and share their discoveries. WhatsApp is one way learners use to work as a team and to support one another.
CREATING A LEARNING PLATFORM
Teachers in different departments have different objectives for creating WhatsApp groups as a learning platform. While in some departments the WhatsApp groups are used as a learning platform to share knowledge to improve learning, exchange experiences and ideas, in others the emphasis is on providing a space where learners could access learning materials, information, content and support provided by teachers. Others see WhatsApp groups as an extension of in-class teaching after the normal school hours. Most schools in the present study discourage learners from bringing their cell phones to school. Learners could only use cell phones outside the school premises. In other schools, teachers use WhatsApp to target:
· shy learners who often say nothing in class even when they are confused,
· low-performing learners (including “progressed” learners) who need more support and encouragement, and/or
· lazy learners “who get guilty when they realise that other learners are working at home while they are loafing,”
NURTURING THE SOCIAL ATMOSPHERE
For most teachers, the principal objective for creating a WhatsApp group is for no other reason but educational purposes. It turns out that for some learners, WhatsApp has become a pleasant environment and a community where they have a sense of belonging. This is where learners share their thoughts, “private world”, successes, fears and frustrations. Because this deviates from the original objectives, some teachers do not know how to handle this information and what to do with it. Others find the exposure to the personal lives of their learners useful because it helps them to understand, as one teacher puts it “why learners exhibit certain attitudes and behaviours in class”.