Too Late?

In another time and in another place, I used to be a physics teacher.  Everyone in the department had dreadful problems introducing simple formulae, such as speed = distance/time, to GCSE classes.  The resistance to the idea that we could use mathematical techniques in science lessons was immense and deeply rooted.  It was very clear that in the learners’ conception of science, there was no place for calculations.  Of course their view of science and what it included had been formed by their experience in school over the previous nine years.  Let’s face it, if they hadn’t encountered formulae in science in all this time, then perhaps they had a point.

All those years ago, we came up with a radical solution.  Despite the fact that the vast majority of GCSE learners found using formulae too challenging, we decided that learners in Year 7 should get to grips with these same simple formulae.  These Year 7 learners, who where still forming in their minds a picture of science and what it included, could easily do the calculations that GCSE students couldn’t cope with.  They could manipulate the formulae so that they could work out distance traveled given speed and time – those GCSE learners certainly would not do this.

I am certain that this was nothing to do with ‘ability’.  I am sure that it was more a case of learners closing their mind to things that they did not want to do, or to things that they perceived had no place in the subject.  By introducing the concept as early as we could we broke down these barriers and learners accepted that the concept had a valid place in the subject and that it was something they should embrace.

In the last couple of months I have encountered something similar.  As you will no doubt know, ICT is no more in schools and it has been replace with Computing.  For all of our Key Stage 3 learners this is new, although we have been teaching aspects of Computing for a considerable time.  In Year 9 we are teaching all sorts of concepts that will probably end up in either the Year 7 or 8 curriculum, once things settles down.  One of these concepts is binary.  I have devised a series of lessons to take learners through the basics of binary.  When I taught these lessons to Year 9s including ‘top set’ learners, I met a great deal of resistance.  Many of the learners had the opinion that concepts of number had no place in their lessons with computers.  Several learners really struggled with the work.  This was a big contrast to the way in which the Year 8 learners tackled the exactly the same work.  Almost without exception, my mixed ability Year 8 learners tackled all of the work quickly, accurately and without complaint.  The only explanation can be that the Year 9 learners, who were on paper ‘higher ability’, had created barriers to learning in their minds.  I am certain that it was more a case of digging their heels in and not engaging with the task as well as they might.

So, what can you take away from these anecdotes?  Learners construct their own vision of the limits of a subject, which may be different from the teacher’s conception of the subject.  These limits are set by experience and their experience needs to be broadened out while they are still creating their idea of the content of the subject.  Also, don’t under estimate younger learners; they are often capable of more than you might imagine.  So, if your exam classes are struggling with a concept or idea, try introducing it to them when they are younger when their ideas are still developing.

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Too Late?

What’s The Point?

As any experienced teacher will know, being crystal clear about the objectives of a lesson is vital to success.  But an even more vital question is: what should those objectives be?
We all have national curriculum programmes of study or exam specifications to cover and rightly, if we don’t get these covered in the allotted time then we will be pulled up for it.  Most schemes of work are devised with the idea of covering the material in a given specification and the scheme will ensure that everything is covered in a given number of lessons.  There will also be time allocated to completing any controlled assessment or coursework, if there is any for that subject.
This is all very well, but inevitably, some learners will not make the progress that they should and some will be frustrated when they don’t ‘get’ things that they think they should.  These learners can be in danger of their progress stopping altogether and they can become stuck.  Once learners are stuck, as any teacher knows, it can be a really difficult job to get them progressing again.
If learners are to progress at all they need certain attitudes.  Some learners come to us with these attitudes fairly well embedded and others come to us without them.  There has been a lot written recently about Dweck’s growth mindset and encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset.  To an extent I am thinking of the attitudes that learners need in order to display a growth mindset, attitudes such as perseverance, reflection, risk taking, independence, collaboration, and realising that they are responsible for their own learning and that learning is not inflicted upon them.  I am certain that learners will not make the progress expected of them unless they are at least aware of these characteristics or even better, they have them embedded in their actions.
It is clear that lower achievers, and in fact some higher achievers, do not have these characteristics and progress for them, at least in some areas is difficult.  I firmly believe that for this group of students it is worth having lessons where the objective is to improve an attitude to learning, such as perseverance or risk taking.  The lesson can be successfully delivered through the medium of the subject that the learner is studying.  This is one of the occasions where displaying the objectives at the start of the lesson would make the lesson less effective.  It is important they the learners believe, at least initially, that they aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary.  The lesson will be more effective if the objective emerges naturally from the tasks that the learners are engaged in during the lesson.
In my subject, computing, it is vital that the learners are risk takers and will persevere in the face of failure if they are to progress.  It is vanishingly rare a programmer working on a program will only meet success.  The usually experience is that a programmer will meet a series of setbacks – failure – that need to be overcome before the program works properly.  Recently I gave my Year 9 class a series of programming tasks of increasing difficulty.  The first ones they could do without too much effort, but when they were attempting the later ones they were experiencing more and more failures – increasingly they needed to persevere and take risks.
At the end of the lesson I asked the students how they felt when they were doing a task and failing repeatedly.  They could describe this really well; they talked about anger, frustration and annoyance.  I then asked them how they felt when they had completed a really difficult level.  Once more, their replies were excellent – elation, ecstatic and overjoyed.  I asked them to relate these two feelings and they soon realised that there was a direct relationship: the more they suffered the greater the feeling of success.  I then related this to perseverance and risk taking.  Most of them took on board the idea that these too attitudes are a requirement for success in programming.
I am certain that this experience will help the learners when we go on to more complex tasks.  At the very least I will be able to say to them, “Do you remember how you struggled and how you felt when you were successful?  You need to persevere and take risks on this task too.  Then you’ll feel the success.”
What’s The Point?