Powerful Learning Conversations

Powerful Learning Conversations (PLC) sought to improve the feedback that teachers give to pupils in Year 9, by training them to apply techniques used in sports coaching. It is based on the idea that feedback in sports coaching is often provided immediately after a task is performed, and delivered in a way that children are more likely to respond positively to. The training programme adopted a ‘cascade’ model: expert teachers were trained in the approach and then expected to disseminate their training to English and Maths teachers in their school. PLC was developed in the UK secondary school context by the Youth Sport Trust (YST) in collaboration with the University of Exeter.

This feasibility pilot study was conducted in 20 schools between January 2014 and November 2014. It had two aims: (1) to explore whether the programme is feasible and ready for a full-scale trial, and (2) to explore the effect on children's attainment and other outcomes of the programme.

Key Conclusions

The following conclusions summarise the project outcome

  1. There was no evidence that the programme had an impact on English attainment.

  2. The evaluation detected a positive impact on Maths attainment, but this result is not secure and we are not able to draw firm conclusions about the programme’s impact.

  3. Interviews and observations with teachers found the programme was implemented in different ways and with different levels of understanding in different schools. This could be avoided by ensuring the programme and its underpinning concepts are more clearly defined.

  4. The intervention is not ready to be evaluated using a large-scale trial without further development. In particular, it is important that the programme is more clearly defined and less open to interpretation by teachers.

  5. If the programme is taken to a full trial it is recommended that paper-based tests are used.

What is the impact?

The pilot provided mixed evidence of promise. There was no evidence that PLC had an impact on English attainment. The evaluation did detect an impact on Maths attainment, which was equivalent to six additional months’ progress over the course of a year. However, it is important to note that these results, particularly the Maths result, should be treated with caution. The number of schools in the control and intervention groups became unbalanced as five schools dropped out of the project and four schools were unable to complete the Maths outcome test due to technical difficulties. This could potentially bias the result, and so we cannot draw firm conclusions about the programme’s impact on academic achievement.

The evaluation did not provide evidence of a differential impact on pupils eligible for free school meals or pupils with a low prior attainment.

The evaluation provided mixed evidence regarding the programme’s feasibility. The training was well-attended by teachers and they appeared to be engaged. Nearly all teachers who took part in the training found it interesting, engaging and relevant to their teaching, and believed that their school as a whole would benefit from the programme. The programme is likely to be affordable if it was delivered at scale. The cost of the programme as it was delivered in this pilot was estimated as £70.00 per pupil in the first year and £2 per pupil per year over the two subsequent years. This estimate is based on 3,191 pupils (corresponding to the original number of pupils involved before any dropout), and includes two days of initial training for teachers. These estimates do not include direct salary costs, supply cover for training or the time required for teachers to develop the necessary resources.

However, there were also some implementation challenges. Teachers were not provided with a pack of resources or manual to follow, and for some teachers this appears to have been a barrier to delivery. The distinctive features of feedback in sport were insufficiently defined, as were the opportunities and challenges of applying such methods in the classroom. A lack of time was also identified as a key obstacle to promoting PLC across the whole school: project leads and teachers were not able to devote sufficient time to this work, since they were delivering the intervention as an additional activity. In some cases, lead teachers did not have the authority to ensure implementation throughout the whole school. Some teachers reported concerns that they could lose control of the class if they used the PLC approach, and a number of teachers referred to issues of class control when putting PLC into practice.

The intervention is not ready to be evaluated in a larger trial without further development, particularly to ensure that it is better defined and has a clearer structure. 

Is there evidence of promise? MixedThe programme did not have any effect on English. The evaluation did detect a positive effect on Maths, but this finding is insecure. Additional research is required to fully understand the impact of the programme on Maths attainment.
Was the approach feasible?MixedThe programme requires additional development to ensure it is more clearly defined.
Is the approach ready to be evaluated in a trial?NoThe programme requires a clearer structure and tighter specification before it is ready to be tested using a full trial.

How secure is the finding?

A process evaluation was conducted involving interviews and observations in the delivery schools. The evaluation aimed to establish the ease or difficulty with which project leads and PE, Maths and English teachers implemented PLC and their perceptions of its impact. It also aimed to assess its appeal to Maths and English subject teachers and to assess training, preparation, support and resources.

A small impact evaluation was also performed. 20 schools were randomly allocated to either the intervention or a ‘business as usual’ control group, which did not receive any training related to the intervention. Teachers in the intervention schools received ‘cascade training’ between July 2014 and October 2014. Outcome data was collected between May and July 2015. English was assessed using the Progress in English test, provided by GL Assessment, and Maths was assessed using the Access Maths Test, provided by Hodder Education. Six of the intervention schools took the English test and five took the Maths test, while nine of the control schools took the English test and six took the Maths test. This missing data potentially introduced considerable bias into the trial results, especially for Maths.