Learning Experiences

Yes, I know it’s been a long time. I’m sure if any of my readers out there are currently teaching, they’ll be suffering from the short days and busy schedules that go along with the late autumn term. Parents’ Evenings, exam preparation and so on. I know it probably would have been useful to post about revision techniques, but with my Year 10 students and the large number of resits our Year 11s are (allegedly) working for, I’m losing the will to live. So no revision. And no more complaining.

I’d like, in the interests of reflective practice, to share a horrendous lesson I had with a group the week before last. (More or less – time scales and details have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.) You could safely say this lesson was a learning experience rather than a success. I have this class twice in one day and this is a bit of a challenge, as they’re only Year 9. We had just finished studying photosynthesis and basic plant biology and were about to move on to feeding relationships. I considered several possible ideas to review the material.

  • poster: boring, low effort for me but likely to be a poor output. Nothing physical to take with them to remind them of the ideas they had reviewed.
  • Powerpoint summary: has the advantage of giving them a ‘souvenir’ but a big problem that can be summarised as ‘style over content’.
  • writing questions to match specified answers and vice versa: hard to measure quality of the work they produce – can easily turn into “Ill give you an easy question if you return the favour.”
  • make a board game: can work very well but needs 2-3 lessons to do a reasonable job – I didn’t have this much time.

Hmm.

Inspiration struck. I had just been discussing the possibility of using the ‘wiki’ function on the school VLE with a colleague. We’d ironed out the formatting problems (as effectively an open source product, the documentation leaves something to be desired) and although I had planned to try it out for the first time with older students, there was no technical reason the Year 9s couldn’t have a go.

(For the less confident, a wiki is a collaborative website where all users can edit and change the content and arrangement – Wikipedia is an obvious example.)

I produced seven interlinked pages, using simple headings, based on the lessons we had covered. I drew a copy of the wiki layout on the board so they could see how they were related and so how to navigate from one page to another. I gave a simple list of the three things which should, by the end of the lesson, be on each page:

  • Simple text explaining the concept
  • Useful images, ideally with captions
  • Links to a few appropriate web pages such as Bitesize, S-Cool, Skoool or similar.

I gave each pair a card telling them which area they were to research. An online timer (I used e.ggtimer but there are of course others) gave them five minutes of research time, at which point half of the pairs were told they could start editing while the others continued looking for useful material. At five minute intervals students were asked to finish their edit and choose a new area to research, so another pair could modify their work so far.

Chaos.

Students opened pages to edit before they were told (locking it for other students).

One boy copied two A4 pages from the first hit on Google and announced he’d finished.

Three pairs independently managed to delete the internal links I had carefully put into the main pages, so nobody else could find the pages they were supposed to be editing.

I spent forty minutes moving from one pair to another, repeating the same instructions, then trying to hunt around for whoever was still editing what they should have saved ten minutes ago.

Basically, the lesson was a disaster. Nothing useful was produced, not even the links to the pages they had (theoretically) found while researching. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the kind of lesson where the kids learn a lot from the failures (discussion of experimental errors anyone?) but one where I got incredibly angry with their repeated refusal to listen to instructions.

Lessons to be learned

  1. You’d think I’d know by now not to expect kids to listen, but that’s my first point. Despite laying out the structure on the board and talking them through the timings, as soon as we started it all went horribly wrong because they hadn’t listened.
  2. I had thought of it as being independent work – students would improve on previous efforts so it would be okay if the first groups didn’t do great. Due to the software however later groups couldn’t even edit the pages once they had been left open.
  3. Five minutes wasn’t enough for them to research or edit – it should have been at least ten minutes each. (Fewer changes would have meant less confusion too!)
  4. Next time I’d have them edit their text in Notepad, then ask them all to update, edit, save and close all in one go.
  5. Links between pages need to be marked simple with a very clear “DO NOT EDIT THIS LINE” instruction.
  6. It might be worth splitting the tasks so one pair produce text, the next add diagrams, and the third put in links.
  7. Rather than mixing up the areas at each interval, I’ll have them pass them to the right once – less kids moving around, less confusion, no chance of getting the same area back.
  8. Have a saved successful version available they can’t edit (i.e. mess up) for comparison.
  9. Give them more than headings on the pages – perhaps a sentence or two with deliberate mistakes so they have something to start with.

So I learned a lot. (Don’t do collaborative, open-ended work with that class, to start with!) The issue, then, is when I will be brave enough to repeat the experiment, and with which class? I’ve also just got one started for revision notes, links etc for my 6th formers to complete, but that’s a very different exercise to a class activity. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll post here with any progress.

More posts will be on the way, hopefully with a shorter delay. Let me know how this one has been for you.

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