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Having their say: Collecting gifted voice through focus groups Published in Tall Poppies Magazine July 2017

In the first of these articles on student voice, I mentioned that often “your intent does not equal your impact”. This is a frequent occurrence in schools where teachers are well meaning and have the best intentions but are not quite ‘hitting the mark’ in regards to truly meeting the needs of their gifted and talented students. This is why measuring the impact is so important and there is no more powerful way to do this than to run student focus groups.

So what is a focus group?

Simply put, a focus group is a discussion that does not have to reach a consensus. All ideas are valid and the participants can ‘bounce’ ideas of each other to lead to greater depth of understanding. The ideal number in a focus group is 5 to 10 students. Any smaller than this and it is difficult to get a discussion going, larger than 10 then not all voices are heard. All the participants should have one thing in common (e.g. they are all in the gifted withdrawal group or they are all taught in the same class) and this thing in common should be the purpose of your focus group.

From a research perspective, focus groups allow you to collect quantitative data around the provision for gifted and talented students at your school. The qualitative data itself is more ‘natural’ as participants are in a comfortable environment and are able to expand on each other’s opinions or seek more detail from the speaker.

This does not mean that the conversation is a ‘free for all’ where anything random is discussed. The person who runs the focus group guides the discussion with a few purposeful questions to direct the conversation. Ideally, you would want gifted student focus groups to be run by someone ‘neutral’. This can be an outside provider or someone within the school that does not have a ‘power’ relationship over the students. It is often best to choose someone like a teacher aide, counsellor, or another teacher to run the focus group.

The key skills that the person needs to have are:

  • sensitivity to participant needs and emotional states
  • respectfulness and open-mindedness
  • leadership skills
  • listening skills
  • observation skills
  • patience
  • flexibility
  • self-confidence.
When to use focus groups?

Your gifted and talented provision should be reviewed each year, you can find information on this at http://gifted.tki.org.nz. By running focus groups of students, teachers and parents you will be able to collect authentic voice to find out if your provision is having the impact that you want.

Focus groups can be used to:

  • suggest ideas
  • clarify potential options
  • react to ideas
  • recommend a course of action
  • plan/evaluate
  • make a decision
How to run focus groups?

Set up

The location is very important when running focus groups. You want the person running them and the students to be ‘on equal footing’ so it needs to be in a quiet, informal space where you will not be interrupted. You can choose how many focus groups you run depending on the purpose of the data you are collecting. For example, it may be that you are doing a full review of gifted and talented provision at your school. In that case you would run one focus group of junior students and one of senior students so that you can gauge how the provision differs across the school. I always like to run focus groups with students before running them with teachers and parents as the students’ experiences help me decide what to ask the adults.

Beginning the focus group

The students need to know why they are there – often students initially think that they are in trouble when they come into a focus group! So the first few minutes needs to be spent explaining what the purpose of the focus group is. Preferably the person running the focus group will also get the students relaxing by telling them a little bit about themselves. Ask everyone’s names but do not record them. Explain to the students that no statements will be given against their name and that all the information from the focus groups will be joined into one summary. It is important that you explain that you would like honest answers from the students about what is working well for them and what could be improved upon.

The questions

Keep the questions short and simple because the students should be doing most of the talking. I like to use three questions with some prompts to bring out more information or a “how do the rest of you feel? Do you agree?” The questions that you use need to relate back to the purpose of your inquiry. So if you are looking solely at the impact of a withdrawal group then your questions would be based around that. Likewise if you were looking at the impact of differentiation techniques that you have been trialling. The following questions were developed and used in the Te Toi Tupu Gifted and Talented PLD (2016) in regards to regular classroom practice for gifted students:

Question One - “What is learning like in your class/es?”

Possible prompts:

  • Do you have opportunities at school to explore areas that you are passionate about/have strengths in?
  • Do you feel that you are challenged in your regular classes?
  • What does challenge mean to you as a learner? What does it feel/look/sound like? How do you know you are being challenged/ Is it important to be challenged and if so why?
  • How often do you do work that really makes you think?
  • What happens when you finish early?
  • Is the work too hard/too easy?
  • How much choice do you have in your class/es?
  • Do you have opportunities to work with like-minded students?

Question Two - “How would you describe yourself at school – what are you like when you are there?”

Possible prompts:

  • Tell me more about that.
  • How do you feel at school?
  • Why do you enjoy that?
  • What worries you?
  • Why do you think you are “bored”?

Question Three - “If you could give your teachers some advice on how to teach you, what would you say?”

Possible prompts:

  • Tell me more about that.
  • How could they do that?
  • Why is that important?

Recording the responses

How the responses are recorded will depend on the person running the focus group. I always prefer to take written notes. You can choose to audio record the group but ethically you do need to clarify you will be able to listen to the recording and what will be done with it afterwards. In my experience, I find the written notes easier and less time consuming than re-listening to recordings. Keeping the questions to a maximum on three also assists in recording the data in a manageable way.

Analysing the data

The analysis of the data should be done as soon as possible after the focus group so that that person running them has a clear memory of what was said. I like to keep this as simple as possible by using a basic PMIS chart:

I also like to record any “sound bytes” that give a ‘human’ response. For example, one student said once said to the focus group: “[teachers] allow us to express ourselves in the categories they choose for us” or another Year 10 student “I just stole the Year 12 [subject deleted] text book off the teacher’s desk and worked through that instead”. By completing a table after each focus group, you are able to see themes across all the different groups plus also summarise the information in a user friendly way.

Using the data

Once you have collected the student voice through the focus groups, you need to use this to decide on a plan of action. Where are the strengths of your gifted and talented programme? How can you continue to enhance these? Where are the weaknesses? What strategies or PLD can you put in place to address these? Who needs those strategies? Where is the internal expertise that can support those that are not quite making the impact that they want to? Do we need external support?

If you are applying for Centrally Funded PLD you can use a summary of your focus group data in your PLD Journal proposal. Focus groups are also useful for monitoring the impact of any PLD and for completing the PLD Journal itself.

Take action on the student voice collected

Remember that definition from the first article? “Student Voice is the intentional collection and use of students’ thinking and feedback on their learning and using these voices to inform and improve teaching, learning and school-wide decision-making.” Whakatupuhia te reo, whakatupuhia te tamaiti

These focus groups are only worthwhile if we act on the information given to us. To collect the voice and not use means that the students will be less likely to give us their opinion in the future. You cannot make any promises about the impact of the focus groups but you can release the findings to the wider school community and encourage your school to act on the voice given.

Created By
Brooke Trenwith
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Created with images by janeb13 - "students primary school village laos children instruction" • rawpixel - "untitled image" • Ben Mullins - "untitled image"

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