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.