Learning Journey

22May11

It’s funny how a new perspective can make you reassess what you do – not because it’s necessarily bad, but because we didn’t think it was unusual. We often take for granted the things we know or the methods we use. I find myself surprised when I make a reference to a scientific word being derived from Latin, Greek or Arabic and the kids look at me blankly. Despite knowing consciously that they won’t have a clue, I assume that they remember our common language has ancestors, just like they do. So as an example of reflective practice (which I’ll be blogging about soonish too) here’s something I use in one form or another with all my classes.

One of my colleagues walked though my lesson – common in my school – and commented afterwards about what had been on the board. Thankfully, it wasn’t an error in my spelling (rare) or sloppy chemical notation (more likely). She liked that I was making explicit to the students how knowledge moved from my brain, through theirs and finally to the exam papers in the process we call ‘education’. I base the headings on the stages that students recognise in their own learning and am currently working on a display for my lab,. This will show what happens, why, and crucially what students can do to reduce the gap between teaching and learning.

Teachers know stuff.

As teachers we have a fair grasp of ‘knowledge, skills and understanding‘. Students often assume that this comes from our degree, but as is often the case they’re mixing up cause and effect. We usually did those degrees because of a genuine interest. For many of us that is still reflected in wider reading of magazines, books or blogs. We may be members of professional associations, such as the Institute of Physics. We seek out documentary programmes on TV (e.g. Science and Nature programmes via the BBC) or the radio (ibid), or even go to shows such as Uncaged Monkeys.

There’s another source of knowledge that students overlook and we often take for granted. We’re people. We have lives. We have parents and families, partners and children. We have sports and interests, hobbies and pastimes. We’ve probably lived in several different places, even other countries. We may have had previous careers and we’ve certainly had other jobs. All of these things inform our classroom practice, whether we realise it or not. In the past two weeks I have:

  • shown the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour (space freak since childhood)
  • passed around prenatal ultrasounds and childhood photos (parent)
  • used rock shoes to demonstrate friction (enthusiastic if unskilled rock climber)
  • discussed the different consequences of damaging veins and arteries (first aider)
  • shown a brief clip from Alien to demonstrate acids (science-fiction fan)
  • talked about a range of patient-centred careers and why students should avoid an obsessive focus on medicine (parents both worked in the NHS and partner is an OT)
  • shared the mnemonic my Dad taught me for the connections in a three-pin plug (despite beliefs of my students I was a child, I do have parents and was not made from a kit by our lab techs)

Helping kids to recognise that teachers are both experts and enthusiasts in their particular fields and people in their own right, with life experience as well as possibly previous careers, can only be helpful in the classroom.

We do stuff.

I do a lot of work with my students about active learning and how we can make any activity more effective. Just because the profession-wide focus on L2L came from the government doesn’t mean it has to be bad, or that we have to forget it now we’re not receiving weekly emails about it (this article from Guy Claxton is worth a read if you disagree). The list of possible activities has grown since I wrote it up as a page on this blog but the basic idea is pretty obvious. I gave students a load of tasks they normally complete in lessons, they added to it using examples from other subjects, and together we came up with more active versions. Some were approaches that teachers could use – with the caveat that this means more work for the teacher and a committed attitude from the class if they are to be effective – and others were things that any student could do to make a lesson or task more effective.

Most students were honest enough to admit that the reason they might not use these methods was that they didn’t want to do extra work – despite me pointing out that the result was better learning in less overall time. Many would rather do less intensive activities which involve less interaction, perhaps so they can leave the thinking to other students. We discussed how simple changes to lessons can move the focus from teaching to learning, and how teachers already do a lot of these. (I feel strongly that many professionals have always used the different L2L ideas, long before it had a name and a strategy, we just didn’t necessarily tell the students.)

  • predict the content of the next powerpoint slide
  • ‘What questions do we need to answer?’ as a lesson starter
  • write a review or summary notes after watching a video
  • produce three questions to test someone’s understanding after the activity
  • Good/Bad/Interesting consequences of a concept in the ‘real world’

Interestingly, I found that even my sixth form students were quite resistant to the idea that they should be doing their own, self-directed wider reading and study. Some of them do it, I think – I loan out enough books and send links to enough blogs and iPlayer programmes – but not in any organised or reflective way. Perhaps this is less of a problem with students in humanities or arts subjects, where the ‘big picture’ is better recognised? I’m now exploring the potential of a VLE as a route for giving routes to wider reading – links to relevant blog posts, for example – for students to explore as they consolidate their understanding.

We have notes.

This can be controversial but I feel that some kind of permanent record is useful. In my setting students make written notes, made up of a mixture of tasks and activities. Copying sections is a small part of it, usually made more active (see what I did there?) by having them write their own summaries, rewording or structuring in Cornell-style or similar. There are of course alternatives; I’m currently looking at having my students produce an ongoing blog of what they have learned in science, complete with pictures and links. Using this to replace school notes is more of a long-term goal as I can just picture my HoD’s face. There are also textbooks and revision guides, either of which can be a valuable resource if personalised with enough annotations and post-it notes. Discussing the weaknesses of websites such as BBC Bitesize, S-Cool and Skoool in terms of annotations, finding an exact fact or failure to match up with courses is valuable in itself.

I think it is important for students to recognise that short-term understanding – and the clues and hints that scaffold it – should be recorded somehow. We all forget things. The notes then offer an easy way to prompt recall, providing short cuts to what was understood in lessons. This shows that teachers asking for written notes to be clear enough to reread isn’t just awkwardness. I have an advantage here in that my handwriting is awful, so students can see that I focus on layout and diagram clarity for a reason.

We remember stuff.

I’m not going to copy and paste sections from my many posts on revision. Suffice to say that my students were able to tell me (and show evidence of using ) my MORSE Code for revision, and discuss their preferred methods as I’ve mentioned on my page and posts on the subject. Reading isn’t revision, and they know that. You can talk about the difference between short-term and long-term memory, draw diagrams of neurons or misquote Chinese proverbs if you like.

Now, you could argue that in an ideal world this would be the end of the journey. Unless, of course, you live in the real world. I hope my students remember some of what I teach them, long after they finish the course. I want them to be different, better, because of what they’ve learned in my lab. I want them not to need me any more. But I also want them to be able to demonstrate what they understand, what they’ve learned to do, by getting the marks in the exams. And so…

We get marks.

It can be interesting to ask students what they need to pass an exam. Many will suggest that simple knowledge is enough. Ask what is needed for a good performance on stage or the athletics field, and suddenly they come up with all kinds of other factors. Putting an exam in terms of a performance seems to help them realise how much more there is to it.

Hardware matters – pens and pencils, calculators or set texts. I still hate that as a school we loan this equipment to GCSE students who can’t be bothered to bring their own, so the lesson they learn is that teachers take up the slack. Confidence helps, but what is more important is that they learn not to panic when stressed. I’m a big fan of The Site generally, and more than one of my students have found their pages on anxiety and stress helpful as exam season approached.

A systematic approach to the exam paper helps too. When using past papers I get students used to the idea that there will be easy marks, available for everyone. The basics – counting marks, keeping track of time, checking when you’re finished, never leaving blanks – are the same for everyone. In science, I use (and model, and display, and encourage) checklists for both mathematical and written questions. As I point out, if airline pilots and intensive care nurses can use checklists, why shouldn’t we?

Summary

As I said at the beginning, I’m putting the display together for my lab. Each time my students and I look at one of these stages, we come up with different ideas, different approaches. How they apply what we discuss will vary from student to student. I hope they think about how the same methods, or at least the same strategy, can be used in their other subjects. It also helps in terms of classroom management – they feel that we’re working together rather than me telling them what to do. Benefits for everyone on the same journey.

I’d welcome, as ever, ideas and suggestions. Please add your comments (first-timers will be moderated), whether positive or critical, and I hope reading this far has been worth your time.

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One Response to “Learning Journey”

  1. 1 myorangecrush

    I DESPISE the fact that pupils turn up to exams without pens, pencils and calculators.

    My standard response to ‘miss, I don’t have a pen’ in the lab is to ask them if they’re wearing shoes.

    ‘Yeah’ is the usual response, to which I reply ‘Well, shoes are vital for getting to school to learn, pens are vital for learning. You remember one, you remember the other’.

    However, I then follow that up by pointing to the pile of 10 for 20p pencils on my desk.

    ‘Miss, these pencils are shit’. I get then. To which I reply ‘if you want decent equipment, BUY YOUR OWN’.


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