Author Archives: drwilkinsonsci

Why We Learn Stuff

The GCSE and A-Level exams aren’t going to happen in May/June thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and at the time of writing there is no plan as to whether they’ll be postponed to later in the year or replaced with a teacher/school assessment. Some students at school today were pleased, others were upset, but most seemed to be feeling a mixture of frustrations at the lack of clarity in what would happen instead, and that they wouldn’t be able to show what they have learned over the last two or more years.  I’m not sure any stress was relieved in the announcement at all, though perphaps in the long term once the situation is clearer students will be able to relax.

However, the talk of imminent parties and gatherings also worried me as it doesn’t seem in keeping with the purpose of shutting schools to maximise physical isolation and minimise the spread of the virus. Would we have been better off holding back on cancelling exams a bit, keeping students at their desks a little longer to stop sixteen and eighteen year olds spreading the disease in party mode?

One student said to me that he was annoyed “What’s been the point of learning all this stuff?” he asked?

Inspired by a tweet I’d read the previous lunchtime by Laura McInerney I replied “Learning is never wasted. Exams are a single day, the point of learning this stuff is so much bigger than exams.” However, was not as easily convinced as I was by Laura’s argument. “The only time I’m ever going to use Pythagoras’ Theory is in a Maths exam” he said, “and now I might not sit that exam and I’ve learned something pointless.”

But Laura is right, learning isn’t pointless, students should carry on learning anyway. Revise for exams that in all likihood wont happen, because it’s the right thing to do.  Because knowing stuff and learning stuff is part of what makes us human, and the body of knowledge that we teach kids for GCSE is an important part of our collective cultural capital whether it’s useful in the future or not. The lyrics of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and the rhythym to Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance aren’t useful in any meaningful way to anyone, but they should be known by everybody because they are part of the fabric of our culture and society. Like watching Indiana Jones and Star Wars, things we learn at school such as Pythagoras’ Theorem, the causes of The Second World War, Metal Reactivity Series and how Oxbow Lakes are formed should just be things we know because they represent the best of humanities achievements in each field…..

“I’ve never seen Star Wars.” the student iterruped me.

“What?”

“I’ve never seen Star Wars. And I’ve never even heard of Dave Brubeck.”

“Well, we’ve found a couple of gaps in your cultural capital which need filling this summer during your physical isolation from each other.”  So instead of Partying and spreading a virus, in between topping up their revision for exams that probably wont happen I suggest you plug some gaps in your cultural capital…

But like searching for knowledge on the internet that you haven’t been taught about, students can’t plug gaps they don’t know are there. So here are some recommended cultural capital for my students for this summer.

Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list, but a few of my personal favourites from a range of genres for a teenager to get their teeth into during a summer of physical isolaton but social connection.  So here we go kids… With your fancy internet connections and devices you should be able to sort this lot without leaving the house and should kill a week or so of boredom. Happy to be pointed towards gaps of my own in the comments…

Albums

Dave Brubeck – Greatest Hits

David Bowie – Station to Station

Lauren Hill – Miseducation Of…

The Roots – Things Fall Apart

Pulp – Different Class

Led Zepplin – IV

 

Books

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins

1984 – George Orwell

Killing Floor – Lee Child

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

What If…? – Randall Monroe

 

Films

Life of Brian

Withnail & I

La Vite E Bella

Interstellar

Star Wars

Big Hero 6

 

TV Shows

Frasier

West Wing

Spaced

Star Trek TNG

Fawlty Towers

Stranger Things

 

What’s in a Name?

All I want to do is have a little fun before I die
Says the man next to me out of nowhere
It’s apropos of nothing he says his name is William
But I’m sure he’s Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy

No Sheryl, just no.  If he says his name is William, call him William. Maybe your first impression was wrong or he’s trying something new. Either way, give the guy a break and call him by the name he’s asked you to, it’s a matter of respect.

****

One of my most vivid memories of my days at school is of a KS3 art lesson. Our Art teacher, who we shall call, Mr Grumpypants, was a long-in-the-tooth traditional teacher. Traditional in the 90s meant “mock them and cane them” mould rather than “teach them and test them” that I’d like to think it means today. He always refered to students by their surnames, a phenomenon that was being phased out by a new headmaster, but was clearly a progressive stept too far for Mr Grumpypants, who only learned the surnames of anyone with an inkling of artistic talent; refering to everyone else as “boy” (for it was an all boys school).

I can’t remember how many lessons we’d had. I could be generous and say it was only two or three, but honestly my peers could insist we were two terms in and I’d easily believe Mr Grumpypants had barely learned a student name.

On this particular day, things were kicking off. Perhaps it was windy, or there was a wasp in the room, but whatever the reason, we were doing little and Mr Grumpypants was furious that his lesson was being derailed and he started shouting at one of the ringleaders of the tormentors who he’d just witness throw a pencil across the room, for which he was going to issue a detention.

“What’s your name, boy?”
“Andrew, Sir”
“Not your first name. your surname, boy.” Shouted Grumpypants
“That is my surname, Sir. My name is Joseph Andrew.” and Joe Andrew was not lying for that was his name.
“Well, Andrew Joesph, you will be sharpening pencils after school on Friday.” said Mr Grumpypants, writing his name on the board

He spent the rest of the year calling Joe Andrew, Andrew Joseph seemingly oblivious to the sniggers from the rest of the class. Needless to say that Joe had little respect for Mr Grumpypants, and few of the rest of us did either.

****

Names are important. As the replies to a recent viral tweet show, people are understandably attached to their names and find it annoying when people get them wrong.

 

Yet, we are likely to get students names wrong, unless we ask them.  My parents christened me William, but called me Billy from the day I was born onwards. My Dad always said he could tell which teachers had no real interest in helping me as an individual when looking down their lists at parents evening or in reports as they refered to me as William, or worse, Will.

As the above tweet, and it’s quoted replies show, people lose respect quite quickly for people who make no attempt to get their name correct. Whilst some names that are alien to your culture might be difficult to pronounce, if you make no effort at all then you are alienating that individual and they will quickly lose respect for you.  But you don’t have to do your research ahead of time, (though you know that students preferred names are often listed on SIMS, right), just quickly circulate the class in the first lesson and ask each student how they’d like to be addressed. For sure, there are plenty of students who don’t mind whether you call them Tom or Thomas, but you’ll be amazed how often students use their middle names, have a preference for shortened or full versions of their names or even preferred spellings of Ollie/Olly/Oli which is worth getting right when you write written feedback.

Our name represents our identity. Our name is who we are. Those who do not use our preferred name are not acknowledging us as individuals. We become words on pieces of paper, faces in the crowd. We lose our individualism. Do you think a teacher gets their student’s name wrong gets the same respect as the teacher who gets their name right?

Whilst, my A-Level Chemistry teacher who wanted to call me Bill (“Billy is so childish“, he would say) would eventually be right; that I would grow up a bit and refer to myself as Bill, it didn’t happen until long after Univeristy, and it’s still never Mac or Buddy, Sheryl.

Applying Cognitive Science Principles to Practical Work

I’ve been on a bit of a journey with practical work. When I trained to be a teacher I was told that students would remember things discovered for themselves better than they would remember things told to them. Alongside this falsehood I was also told that students couldn’t be expected to listen to me talk any longer than 5 minutes in a lesson, so I should plan a practical so that I could stop teaching talking and get them “doing something”. Finally, and most wonderfully of course, practical work ticked the elusive “K” box for kineaestic learners who were normally so difficult to cater for. Taken together these reasons led me, during training, to look for practical tasks for students to perform in as many lessons as possible and this was reenforced by largely positive feedback from my observers when I did this.

Jumping forward a couple of years and I absolutely hated practical work. My personal reflections (at the end of assessment blocks, terms and years of work) led me to realise that students had learned little during practical work. Students weren’t able to complete tasks correctly without explicit guidance, many didn’t engage properly in practical work and behaviour management was so much more difficult when every student was out of their seat. As a result, practical work was frequently incomplete, students weren’t thinking about the things I wanted them to think about and were sometimes “discovering” and remembering incorrect things because they were doing the practical work incorrectly. Most frequently though, even when I’d improved my behaviour management and written clear explicit instructions in duplicate on powerpoint and worksheets for students to follow, students were remembering the process or events of the lessons, rather than the scientific ideas that I wanted them to think about. In short, they weren’t learning what I wanted them to learn.  I despised practical work and started to ditch many practicals from my lessons.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve come back to practicals and have perhaps found a happy middle ground. Getting involved in twitter, discovering ResearchEd and #CogSciSci has led me to apply some of the principles of Cognitive Science to Science practicals to make them more effective. Slowly but surely, I’ve reintroduced more practicals back into my classroom in a way that is reasonably effective in getting kids to learn.

So here are those Cognitive Science principles (there’s only two really) and how they can be applied to practical work in Science lessons.

Cognitive Science Principle 1: Students remember what they think about.

Or as Dan Willingham but it so beautifully in “Why Don’t Student’s Like School?” Memory is the residue of thought. So…

  1. Ditch attention grabbers and competitions.

Craig Barton has his Swiss Roll story. Bob Pritchard has his flaming tampons. I have my horrific water-pistols lesson. Almost every teacher can tell you of a lesson hook gone wrong.  A lesson hook which became the focus of students attention, the thing they remembered instead of the lesson ojectives you were hoping to hang off the hook.

Science Practicals often seem to be the subject of a “hook” that will grab students attention and make the activity more engaging and relevant for students. I used to run the KS3 chromatography lesson as a “who committed the crime lesson” black pens had been collected from four suspects and compared to ink found at the scene. Next lesson I asked students to answer a chromatography question to which one student said “That’s the Headmaster’s pen, I remember he did it!” I once asked students to choreograph different types of chemical reactions though the medium of interpretive dance only for students to later tell me they remembered Josh getting the moves wrong and ruining their performance. Unsurprisingly when I asked students enagage in a competition of home-made water pistols, they did not remember the salient facts of water pressure, instead they remembered they subsequent chaos.  These attention grabbing hooks are well meant, and might lead to temporary enagement in lessons, but do not lead to students learning what we want them to, because they are thinking about the hook or competition instead. So use these with extreme caution, if at all.

  1. Minimise discovery learning.

Given students will remember what they think about, they are no more likely to remember something that they have discovered for themselves as they are to remember something told to them, as long as they are thinking about the right things. In fact, students will often make incorrect discoveries during practical work which they then remember. When students investigate current in a series circuit, students will move the ammeter around and often find the digital ammeters give differences of a hundreth of an amp or so in different positions. Whilst this can be a great opportunity for discussion on accuracy of measurements, random errors and anomalies, this is only possible if students are already familiar with the knowledge that current should be the same everywhere. If students do not already have this knowledge and are discovering this fundamental law of electrical current for themselves they will often believe that the current slowly leaks from the circuit as they have seen with their own eyes the current drop by 0.02A around the circuit.

As a general rule, I now normally teach concepts before practicals on the same subject. I reserve discovery learning for practicals, which I know from experience, are difficult for students to get wrong (e.g. stearic acid cooling curve) or which give immediate feedback they they’re doing it wrong (perhaps by using visualised instructions – see below).  However, these situations are rare, as immediate feedback (the type built into computer games that kids “discover for themselves”) is only really possible for students to identify for themselves if students know what to expect.  I can’t stand on everyone’s shoulder all the time – or can I? – See Point 5 on slow practicals, below.

  1. Make practical work hypothesis-driven.

Real science, done by real scientists in the real world is not done blindly. As I’ve written about previously, real science is hypothesis-driven. Scientists do not conduct an experiment with no idea of the outcome, they use their expertise in a subject area to hypothesise a phenomenon then carefully conduct an experiment to rule out alternative explanations (the null-hypothesis). Are your students able to predict what will happen during a practical before they start?  If they can’t predict the outcome of practical work, then in most cases I’d suggest they are probably not ready to complete the work.

Whilst it might be difficult for our novice students to fully comprehend the work they’re about to do and think it through to it’s logical conclusion, if we truly want students to act like real scientists then we will ask them to at least try and think things through before starting, having taught them the prerequisit knowledge before hand. If necessary we can use techniques such as 2-part MCQ (example below, and in previous blog) to guide students and assess whether they are ready to engage in practical work. By asking students to hypothesise the outcome we have already directed their thinking towards the key concept of the work and this remains front and centre of their thinking throughout.  Below is a hinge-point slide in my work on Enzymes. Only when students can successfully answer both parts of this question, do I know that they are ready to test their hypothesis…

img_2037.jpg

  1. Use Narrative tools such as “conflict”, “complications” and “causality”.

I’ve written and spoken previously about harnessing the priviledged nature of stories in science teaching and the oral teaching tradition, which is particularly useful in non-practical lessons, however it can be used to engage students to think about the key concepts in a practical lesson too. During a practical demonstration it is often useful to stop and ask students “What happens next?” Then perhaps send students away to reconstruct the demo up to that point themselves and complete it, all the while thinking about “what will happen next?”  Similarly, during the electrolysis of solutions practical, I like to demonstrate the practical using a Copper Sulfate solution, talking the class through what is happening. Then I ask them to predict what would be different if we changed the solution to one containing Sodium Sulfate?  Take some answers from the class (hypotheses) and then send them away to do this second half of the practical themselves with the key question for the lesson at the forefront of their minds as it is the “conflict” in the story of the lesson so far.

 

Cognitive Science Principle 2: Students have a limited working memory (a.k.a. Cognitive Load Theory).

Adam Boxer has written wonderfully and extensively on this in the past and I often have his diagram (below) in mind when I’m considering practical work and how I can minimise student’s cognitive load during practical work.

Picture1

  1. Use slow practicals to minimise cognitive demand.

Again, Adam has already written extensively about this, but I’ve found in particular this approach is most useful with young KS3 students for whom much of the equipment is new. By breaking tasks up into very small steps and bringing the class back together, either silently at their desks, or collectively at the demonstration bench allows the students have easily completed each task without cognitive overload. It allows the teacher to check each step is complete (immediate feedback), and allows extensive questioning at key steps by the teacher of the class to guide the thinking of students on the key elements of the task at the important moments “look at the thermometer now that the water is boiling, what do you see?”  Whilst it can seem like the lesson is moving slower than usual, it isn’t really, and it’s certainly moving more efficiently than usual with more of the class completing the task successfully.

  1. Use visualised instructions to lower cognitive demand and provide immediate feedback.

Visualised instructions effectively use dual coding to guide students through complicated practical tasks with both written instructions and diagrams to allow students to easily set up practical equipment and complete steps in the correct order. Personally I’ve found these to be most effective with older KS4 students who are already familiar with most of the equipment being used and just need to make sure they complete the steps in the right order. A number of science teachers have been making useful visualised instructions that we can all use, including Adam Boxer, Dave Paterson and John Lindney the latter two have made visualised instructions for all the KS4 compulsory practicals.  The use of these instructions help students minimise the amount of working memory dedicated to the process of completing the task, and allows students to free up working memory, through our guidance and questioning to think about the scientific concepts involved, not just the process the practical.  When combined with techniques above such as hypothesis driven tasks, students spend more time thinking about the things we want them to think about during the practical, and less time wondering if they should pour the solution into a beaker or an evaporating basin, or indeed what the difference is between a beaker and an evoporating basin.

 

***

 

When planning practical lessons we should consider what students are thinking about, how we can direct their thinking towards what we want them to think about and how to minimise the information that we don’t want them to think about. By doing these things we can make practical work effective for students. BUT… and it’s a big “BUT”… there will still be times when students will learn more effectively without practical work.  We should always be willing to consider during our planning if there is an alternative task which will allow students to think about the scientific concept more clearly and without distraction? For example will students learn the complicated voltage-current relationship of a filament bulb most effectively from a tricky to complete practical, or from plotting model data given to them, followed by SLOP questions?  Sometimes, despite the approaches above, it’s still best to avoid practicals and go for something else.

 

This is a blog version of a talk that I gave at the ASE West of England Conference at Bath Spa in November 2019.

 

Confession: The Worst Lesson I Ever Taught

Part of an ocassional series of blogs from the #EduTwitter crowd confessing hineous mistakes made in the name of putting lesson engagement ahead of learning stuff.  You can read other confessions by Adam Robbins, Bob Pritchard, Grumpy Teacher & Amy Forrester.

I have on occasions pretended that I never bought into the fad of discovery learning and engagement. That I came into teaching as a career changer from academic research science knowing that traditional teaching methods of direct instruction and extensive practice were the bedrock of effective teaching and learning. But that’s not true, I came into my PGCE with those opinions, but believed my instructors when they told me these methods were old fashioned and outdated. I believed them when they told me that these were Victorian methodologies not ready for the modern digital world. I was shown a Ken Robinson TED talk and bought it; Hook, Line and Sinker. I was sold. Discovery learning was more effective, group work was king, use of technology was the future. I knew I’d need some training, it was against everything that felt natural to me as someone who’d been teaching in labs and lecture theatres for more than a decade already, so I listened to the advice I was given by my school and university mentors, because they were the experts, I was a novice, and I was determined to learn how to be an Outstanding teacher.

I tried many many things during my PGCE in the name of engagement: I had students write their own multiple choice questions, which were easy for their peers to answer because they were poor at writing distractors (if they bothered with distractors at all –  “yer mum” jokes are much funnier); I had students work in groups as sales teams for renewable energy companies; I had students work independently from blog posts I’d written so that I didn’t need to speak to the class at all, after all nothing is more boring than listening to a teacher, right? I even took a science lesson into the dance studio in order that students could choreograph their own dances that represented the signs of a chemical reaction. All of these lessons led to students learning precisely nothing that I wanted them to. But none of them come close to the slow-motion, “please wont someone stop this madness”, car-crash of the time I got bottom set year 9s to make homemade water-pistols.

Confession

The learning objectives were notionally regarding water pressure. That water pressure acts in all directions and the deeper the water the greater the pressure. I wasn’t stupid enough to plan for students to squirt them at each other and carefully planned for students to shoot at paper targets attached to a wall outside.  The “water-pistols” were to be made from plastic drinks bottles with students able to design their own by changing the size of the bottle, the size of the jet hole and how high up the bottle the jet should be placed. They would then take turns to try and shoot the target on the wall. The player with the best “shot” would win a choclate prize; competition element for the boys, see.

The class was a “difficult” one. Set 10 of 10. Just 14 students. The two teaching assistants, alongside myself and their normal class teacher meant an adult:student ratio of 1:3.5. Classroom management should be easy, right? Wrong. The hole making in the lab was managed well enough with most of the sharp metal impliements used with adult supervision and we counted the tools out and back in again, to ensure no one had helped themselves to a pocket weapon. However, things began to unravel outside.

I’d drawn two chalk lines on the playground floor. One for the shooters to stand behind and another further back, behind which students would wait their turn. I stood between the two shooters supervising the filling buckets and blocking the path by which students would shoot at each other. They wouldn’t dare squirt a teacher, right? I had this all planned out.

The first two pairs of students attempted to fire at their targets, but were actually well short, perhaps I’d mis-judged how far their homemade supersoakers would be able to reach? Students five and six had their attempts, then six loudly declared that the competition was “shit” and stepped over the white line to take another shot from from closer to the target, which he hit and declared himself the winner. This placed him now in the firing line of five who shouted “Nah man, you cheated”, changed his angle of attack and shot five.  Six laughed, turned and fired back and the two friends ran off to chase each other around the empty playground with their new toys, much to the amusement of the other students who cheered them on.

As I finally stopped five and six’s chase and stood at the back admonishing them, I let seven and eight step forward to take their turns with no human barrier between the firing stations. Unlike five and six, seven and eight were not good friends.  Seven had made a very large hole in their pistol which served to make her gun very ineffective and it did little more than make her shoes wet, much to the amusement of eight. Seven unscrewed the lid of the bottle and emptied the remaining contents over eight in retaliation for the insult. Before I could step forward to call a halt to proceedings, and in seemingly slow-motion eight responded by picking up one the buckets for filling and emptied it’s entire contents over seven.

Then all hell broke loose. There was screaming, shouting, laughing and baying. Seven, soaked to the skin, launched herself at eight and much hairpulling and slapping ensued. The shouts of “fight fight fight” caused a sea of faces to appear at the windows overlooking the playground so now several more lessons were thrown into chaos.

Myself and the usual class teacher separated the students and the remainder of the lesson was spend dealing with the fallout, seven and eight were given no punishments beyond the breaktime lost after the lesson and seven spent the rest of the day wandering around school in her PE kit. Two weeks later barely a single mark was scored by any of the students in the water pressure question in the end of chapter test, and I never taught water pressure with a homemade water pistols activity again.

How I “Trad” Flipped Learning

I introduced “flipped learning”, or at least what I’ve been calling “flipped learning”, into my 6th form classes 4 years ago and feel I’ve had some success with it. I’ve tweaked it and refined it a little over the years and am fairly happy with how things are going.

I was a little disappointed therefore to read that a Randomised Control Trial of flipped learning has shown little except short term gains for some advantaged students and exacerbated the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Whilst there are clearly flaws in the experimental design* such as the nature of the selected institute, the limited subjects and the fact that just a three lesson series in the middle of a much longer course was chosen for the trial. It seems remiss to not even ensure videos were watched…

“almost 80 percent of Math and 73 percent of Economics students in the flipped classrooms watched at least some of a video.”

… “some” of the video! What the authors clearly mean is “clicked the link”. They go on to say…

“on average, students watched roughly two out of three of the videos.”

At this point, I’m astonished there were even short term gains for anyone.

Students only accessing two thirds of the taught material is a big, perhaps fatal flaw in the study, but that’s not even the biggest flaw.  That is reserved for the total lack of input from the instructors in the trial group.  Those in the flipped learning group were given minimal guidance. During the lesson following watching the video…

“the instructors were provided clear guidance to avoid lengthy lectures during this period, but to use the opportunity to clarify specific questions.”

…so unless students asked specific questions, the instructors were not to go over any of the taught content.  Then when students were answering questions…

“Instructors were given strict guidelines to not teach the material, but instead guide the students through the worksheet and answer any questions they might have” 

…again, so unless students specifically ask a question instructors were not to explicitly teach any material.  What if a student had not understood (or not watched!) the flipped content in the video. How can a student ask pertinent questions to build their schema if they don’t fully understand where this content fits into the wider schema?

I am not surprised this minimally guided “Flipped Learning” had little impact beyond short term gains for advantaged students. Like so many progressive teaching techniques and triangles of nonsense where students guide themselves or teach each other, this model of flipped learning lets down the disadvantaged students who most need the input of teachers the most.

Now it may be that this methodology is the definition of “Flipped Learning” and if it is, then what have been doing with my classes for the last four years is not “flipped learning”. It’s actually something else. Whilst I’m not much of a fan of semantic arguments I’m going to start one here.  I’m going to describe the methodology trialled in Setren et al. as “minimally guided flipped learning”. In the hands of a “trad” teacher, I believe “flipped learning” is something else, perhaps “directly instructed flipped learning”. Let me describe what that looks like and why I think it has benefits in my 6th form classroom.

***

I trialled flipped learning with my sixth form classes after becoming extremely frustrated with several aspects of my sixth form lessons. Firstly the pace of lessons was excruiatingly slow. Students would listen to my teaching and make notes. I would spend ages waiting for students to finish their notes, which weren’t really notes, more hand-written facscimilies of my lecture slides. I trialled emailling students my lecture slides which after a few lessons just made students more chatty and less engaged in the lesson.  With the notes in their email inboxes they simply postponed their learning to a later, unspecified time. The majority of teenagers, given the option will procrastinate if given the option – who knew? Not Setren et al., evidently.

The second frustation of my sixth form teaching regarded student’s independent practice. Students would take worksheets away with them to complete independently at home and bring them back for subsequent marking. Often students would stop at the first difficult question handing work in with an apologetic “I did as much as I could”. Sometimes I suspected they were telling the truth, other times I suspect they used the first sign of resistance to switch from Chemistry to X-Box. With some coaching and cajouling I got them to mostly complete the worksheets, though many of those tricky questions would be incorrect, but it was still clear they were often struggling at home on their own.

I thought flipped learing might be able to kill two birds with one stone, if I could get students to watch videos and make notes at home, then perhaps the contact time with me, their teacher could be better spent answering practice questions and being able to ask an expert questions. However, I was instinctively aware of some of the pitfalls of “minimally guided flipped learning” outlined above, so I tried to head them off.

I was very lucky that I didn’t need to make any videos at all for my flipped learning; James Donkin, aka MaChemGuy had already made an exhaustive set of didactic videos explaining every specification point for A-Level Chemistry. They’re not flashy, largely consisting of James explaining and drawing things on a whiteboard, but that’s what good teachers do in a classroom, so what more do we need? But I needed to make sure students were actually watching them. Did I trust students to watch them? Frankly, no.

So, for each flipped homework (generally a chapter or part chapter of the textbook), I write a google form for students to answer as they’re watching the video (example here). These consist of the embedded videos and some simple, straight forward questions which pretty much come up in the order in which James explains them in his videos. Some are multiple choice, some are longer responses. I’ve learned that the longer questions make a better discussion resource in class, and I’ve also learned that the questions need to be made compulsory in google forms so that students can’t opt out of answering some of them. The main purpose of these forms is to evidence that students are actually watching the material.

Things I love about the google form responses that are generated by my students:

  • I can see who is doing the work straight away when set, and who left it to 1AM the day before the deadline to watch the videos, as their submissions are date-time stamped. I can also see who hasn’t done the work at all, and once students realise I can see that, they all do the work, all of the time. No two-thirds for me.
  • I can quickly read through students responses before the lesson and see where the misconceptions lay within individual students or the class as a whole. This means that I can respond to this in my class teaching. 
  • I use students responses to extended questions as a teaching tool. I put up a selection of anonymous student responses on the board and ask students to read them all. “Can you find two mistakes?” “Can you find an answer which is right, but could be improved with more specific terminology?” “Which answer do you think is the one cut and paste from google?**” Great for generating discussion in class.

Importantly, I don’t see the flipped learning as the end of the teaching. I still use explicit direct instruction to teach much of the content again. I can focus my instruction on the important, tricky or misconcieved sections of the content. However, because students have already been through the content once their attention is entirely on me. They make few notes, and certainly don’t feel complelled to copy everything down from the board***. Students are much better at asking insightful questions which link together the content in their embryonic schema because this is the second time they have seen the content and don’t feel the urge to write down every word I say.

The time gained means we have much more time in class for application questions, recap quizzes and retrieval practice. When I started I aimed that students would no longer take worksheet of questions home but I’ve abandoned this ideal. Quite often I’ll ask students to do the first “easy” questions at home, we can return go through the answers then work together on the more tricky questions and go through the solutions at the end of the lesson****. When I say “work together” this is not group work, but students can bounce ideas of how to answer questions off each other and have me there for guidance, but they’re working through all the questions on their own.

My directly instructed flipped learning has meant that student classroom time in contact with the expert is further into schema building process. The time-rich but learning-light task of making notes is moved to homework.

The publication of the Setren et al. trial on has quite rightly seen this form of minimally guided flipped learning heavily criticised by Greg Ashman amongst others. Greg’s post has made me go back again and reflect on my own practice and I will take a close look at the disadvantaged students in my cohort over the next year. I sincerely hope that my classroom is not a centrifuge, spinning the able and advangtaged out into higher achievements whilst continuing to hold back the disadvantaged.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that even my directly instructed flipped learning would work in all contexts. I’m fully aware of the middle-class nature of my school and cohort. I’m aware that by using this methodology with 6th formers I have already selected for able and successful students. I’ve tentatively trialled flipped learning with younger learners at my school but abandoned it quickly for lack of compliance in certain groups of students which was clearly a disadvantage to them so I returned quickly to classroom Direct Instruction and have little ambition to try again.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool traditional teacher, a proponent of direct instruction, and of just telling kids stuff, rather than finding out for themselves. I’m not going to defend the minimally guided flipped learning on trial in Setren et al. even for a second. But before we throw the baby out with the bath water can we consider that there might be benefits to the technique in certain contexts, especially if we sort out student compliance and are not stupid enough to believe that one video watched means we can abandon any classroom direct instruction.  However if someone shows that even directly instructed flipped learning widens the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, then I’ll be the first to abandon the practice.

 

 

 

* there’s no such thing as a study without flaws.

** once they know you’re wise to this trick, they stop doing that.

*** I tell students that if they want exhaustive notes of the content of the course they should make them while watching the flipped videos, though point out that if they have the course textbook then they have a printed version of everything they need to know already.

**** which also means less marking for the teacher.

 

Starting with a new class

A lot of talk today on twitter about new starts in September, I replied to a tweet from Science NQT Mr_J_Zahn asking for tips on introduction lessons with a new class for September and I starting writing a tweet reply, which became a reply thread, which even when I was done didn’t say everything I wanted to, so decided to write this blog instead.

Firstly, we need to find a way of this not being a question asked by NQTs.  We need to get NQTs into classrooms to see teachers do this for real. I know the first day of term would be an inconvient day to bring student teachers into school, but it would be so powerful for them to see how this is done well by experienced teachers. I understand that this time is probably when teachers themselves feel most vulnerable and perhaps don’t want to open their doors to inquisitive visitors but, I for one, would happily open my door in such a situation.

During my NQT year, my first lessons with classes were, in hindsight, a disaster. I was far too jokey, too eager to be their favourite teacher and I let them make too many decisions.  It took quite some time to win those classes back in terms of respect and behaviour. I was lucky that the compliant classes of the Grammar School I was working in were fairly easy to win back, but I had to work harder than I needed to, at a time when my Sisyphean ball was heavy enough without steepening the slope. In the summer after my NQT year I read Tom Bennett’s Not Quite A Teacher, and immediately wished I’d read it the year before my NQT.  The following quote in particular resonated with me as if Tom had secretly been watching my lessons all year.

If you meet a new class and you give them any indication whatsoever that you’re Coco the Friendly Teacher, then they will mug you like a drunk in Soho. I mean it. Even the nice kids like a bit of sport.

The next year I was moving to a non-selective school and knew that my classroom management game needed to step up. I took most of the suggestions from Tom on board that year and have modifyed it slightly over the last few years. I’m fairly happy with how first lessons go now, and I give this advice to PGCE students I mentor when they start with my classes, and strongly suggest they do the same with all the classes they’re taking.  If I’d been concise with my reply to Mr Zahn’s tweet, I’d have said;

The primary purpose of the first lesson is to show you’re in charge in your room and that you care about your students and their education.

But it would have had no details of how to achieve this, so this is how I do it. I hope it falls into the #WarmStrict category of things…

***

Some people might suggest you take your classlists around to other teachers to get their take on the students or take a look at personal data or their prior attainment data, but I try quite hard not to do this. September is a fresh start for everyone and I know I’d not be too impressed if someone listed all my previous failings and handed them out to the kids before we started, so I try to give them all as blank a slate as possible. I’d rather not know who has previous behaviour issues, or has badly underperformed. I do quickly look up SEN and mark these on my class lists especially if you need to leave a space in your seating plan for a Teaching Assistant. My school policy is that I mark Pupil Premium on my seating plan too, but I really wish I didn’t have to and I try to forget this when dealing with students. However, you should comply with the letter of your school policy though. The first day with a new class, particularly in your NQT year is not the time to fight an idealogical battle with your SLT; though you should take up that battle at a more appropriate time.

Use your class lists to make a seating plan. Again, there might be school policies to comply with, but for me, for my first meeting with a new class anything goes. I try to avoid alphabetical, as that seems to put those who regularly sit in alphabetical order with people they already know well. If I do know I’ve got a tricky behavioural customer or two (perhaps it’s a new seating plan later in the year, or I’ve taught a few of the class before) then I use my bingo card to fill in the four corners first to maximise the distance between them, but basically I fill them in randomly. I print all my seating plans and then staple them together and basically carry it around constantly as my aide memoire for about the first three weeks.

ProTip: I copy my class lists into Excel, then have a blank seating plan template in Excel so I can just copy list into the side of new plan then drag them across into the plan, rather than type them out.

Before the class arrive I place new exercise books, book inserts such as links to online resources or periodic tables to be stuck in along with glue sticks on each desk. I then write clear explicit instructions on the board. I draw the front cover of the book showing what I want them to write on the front (Their Name, Form Group; Subject; Dr Wilkinson). With Year 7s I sometimes get them to write the days of science lessons “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday” underneath to help them remember to bring their books in on those days. Next to this I put the instructions for where the inserts are to be stuck.

Bang on the bell going, I meet the new class outside my room and have them line up in silence. The science block at my school is a bit of a confusing warren, so I do a quick mental headcount and wait if significant numbers are (in)advertently late, and then let them know that now they know where my room is, tardiness will no longer be tolerated.  I welcome the students, introduce myself and tell them that when they enter in a moment they’ll be lining up along the back wall of my classroom in silence so that I can put them in a seating plan.

They come in and line up. If they don’t do this in silence they go back out again, and try again. I’ve never had to have a third attempt. This is a great opportunity to show that you are in charge and you want your instructions followed explicitly.

Once they’re in I explain that I’m going to go along each row in turn reading out the name of the student I wish to sit in each space. “Only when I’ve completed the whole row do I want anyone to move”. I read out the names slowly and clearly placing my hand on the blank exercise book at each position as I read the names.  I send back anyone who moves before the row is finished, 8-10 moving kids make a lot of noise even if their mouths are silent, don’t try and talk over the noise.  “Front row take your seats”. It feels slower, but I’m sure it’s faster than projecting the seating plan and letting students find their seats. Even if it is slower, it’s definitely calmer.

“Front row, you can now follow the instructions on the board in silence while I read out the names of the second row.”  Repeat for subsequent rows. Everyone is now sat down and the front row should have completed the personalisation of their exercise books and be sat in silence. It’s currently the only state of being they know in this room and thus it’s rare for students to have started talking.  “Did I say, discuss the cover of your book with your neighbour?”

Give the back row a minute to catch up, then I ask for their attention with my classroom catchphrase; “Show me you’re listening.” I explain this phrase is different to “silence” since they could be silently writing, or fiddling with a ruler or gluestick which has their attention instead of me and thus they haven’t shown me that they are definitely listening. We all agree therefore that “Show me you’re listening” means stop what you’re doing, stop talking, hands empty and look at the teacher.

I then introduce myself again, tell them what we’re going to learn today, unblank my projector which shows the title of today’s lesson, the date and a starter, and off we go. No gimmicks.

The starter activity or quiz for this first lesson should be something that everyone can at least start… an easy quiz on last year’s work, a list of something where there’s some easy options and more difficult ones; but if you throw something too difficult up here you’ll lose them, especially if you say “Oh this is easy – you should have learned this last year.”  If they can’t do it, say “That’s OK, you’ve probably just forgotten it, perfectly normal part of the learning process”, then reteach and question the class to tease out what they do know. Do not plough on.  But this isn’t special to lesson one, this is just good teaching practice. In this regard lesson one is the same as lesson two and three. I don’t waste time with a game or “get to know you” activity. I care too much about their education to waste their time.

What is special to lesson one is that while students are completing the starter I quickly walk along the rows doing two things; firstly I check students have underlined the date and title, a minor thing perhaps but if you set high standards for their work today, then you have set your expectations for they whole year at this high level. Secondly I ask each student what they’d like to be called this year in my class. “Do you prefer Thomas or Tom?” “Apologies, did I pronounce your name incorrectly at the start, what’s the correct pronounciation?” I make alternations to my seating plan accordingly so that I can remember and use their preferred name.

It’s a small thing perhaps, but it’s a really strong sign that you respect them as individuals. I’ve found students who much prefer to go by their middle name, or an unusual shortening of a common name, others who really dislike their name being shortened. It’s something I had a torrid time with personally at school, being called “William” or worse “Will” by teachers who never asked how they should address me. Anyone who cared about me or knew me at this time called me “Billy” so in my mind those calling me by anything else neither knew me or cared about me.  It’s really not rocket science, yet I still see reports after a whole year of teaching where students are refered to by names they or their parents never use to describe themselves.

The second purpose of my walk around is that I nearly always find students on the walk around who’ve swapped places from my seating plan.  Always by accident, “Oh, I though I was here” and yet despite the accidental nature they are always reluctant to swap back. Strange that.  But I insist they swap back, because this is the first day and it’s their way of testing whether they can bend the rules slightly. They’re testing whether they can be in charge instead of me. But they are not in charge. I will not let them win even the smallest victory today on their terms, because I will have subconsciously told them that they are in charge.

That’s about it for my first lesson, I then continue as normal.  I don’t waste time with an ice-breaker, I don’t monotonously go through dozens of rules, most of which are applicable across the school and some of which won’t apply until we do practical work – I’ll go through those when it matters. I won’t make them blindly copy a list of rules or demonstrate their best handwriting. For now I get them in, show them that I’m in charge, that I care about them as individuals and that I care about their education, so we’d better get started.

 

 

 

Thankful for Knowledge

Within the first couple of Chemistry lessons in Year 7 I dive straight into the Periodic Table with my students. We learn the definition of elements, I tell stories of the discovery of elements of how and when they were named. I like to tell students the stories about how the symbols which don’t relate to their English names came about, because stories have a privledged place in our memories, and thus ‘natrium’ and ‘kalium’ and plumbum’ are all introduced and there’s an inevitable teaching of a bit of Latin for which I make no apologies whatsoever.

Science and Celebrity_Humphry Davys Rising Star_0

Davy’s experiments with Voltaic Cells to split apart compounds into new elements

I then send students home with a list of about 25 elements that I’d like them to learn the names (including correct spellings; I’m looking at you, fluorine) and associated symbols for. They include common elements they’ll be coming across a lot, a mix of one, and two letter symbols and quite a few where the name and the symbol have no relationship in English (hello, aforementioned sodium and potassium, but also iron and copper). Then in the next lesson I give them a test. And often I’ll suprise test them again a week or two later. They tend to do pretty well, because (and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this) most Year 7s like a test, especially a low stakes one, and possibly because by this stage in the year (Chemistry always comes after Biology), they have noticed that low-stakes quizzes in my room often come with Haribo prizes. Never explicitly in advance though, that’s a terrible way to do any rewards. No, there is just a faint suggestion that Haribo may be distributed at any time in my room, often not handed out to the clever clogs who got 15/15, their smugness (and/or possibly cheating during self marking) is reward enough, but instead maybe to everyone who scored 14 or 13. After I have checked that they didn’t actually write “flourine”, in which case I remove a mark and any prize because I am a cold-hearted monster*, and it’s not like they weren’t warned.

After this test, I tell them the good news – that never again will they have to take a Chemistry test without a periodic table in front of them to check the name, correct spelling, symbol and (currently to them) mysterious numbers associated with each element. I tell them that they do not need to remember any information found within the periodic table because it will always be given to them in an exam. I tell students that asking a Chemist to do a Chemistry exam without a periodic table is like asking a snooker player to play without a cue; an entertaining party trick perhaps, but not how things are done properly. However, I also tell them that it’ll be in their interest to remember a bit and that they’ll find they pick up quite a lot of it along the way… 

So why then, if students will always have this information at their finger tips, did I ask them to commit some of it to memory? Well, for three reasons, all of which I believe are applicable to other areas of the science curriculum and beyond:

  1. General Principles.  It is important that students understand the general principles involved.  That element symbols always start with a capital letter, and if there are two letters the second letter is lower case. I want students to know that, even if they look up information from the periodic table, because I want them to know that they can’t transpose or change the upper and lowercase letters.
  2. Fluency. There are certain bits of knowledge that I want students to simply know. Elements that come up so frequently that I want them to know what their symbols are without having to look them up on the periodic table. Elemental symbols that I would like them to have committed to long term memory without having to take up specious space within their limited working memory, by having to use the periodic table to look things up when answering an exam question.
  3. Knowledge Location. By knowing some symbols students have a reference point to use to look up further knowledge.  They know that the periodic table is the go to location when they want to know the symbol from a name, or a name from a symbol. Never again do I want a student to say that they didn’t know to use the periodic table given to them in an exam. I want students to know that the periodic table can tell them the details of the elemental symbols. I want them to be able to find Iron, Copper or Zinc quickly to check the symbol. I want them to know exactly where Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen are to be found on the table when in KS4 and KS5 they are using the table to check atomic masses. I don’t want GCSE students faffing around wasting time searching for common elements on the table.

It’s often said that students don’t need to learn any details in the age of Google.  Why should students need to commit anything to memory when they can “just google it”. Well, they can make mistakes, obviously, but it’s impossible to google something you have no knowledge about at all, what would you search for?

Let me illustrate this point with a little story…

Fighting in the First World War was so devastating that just 53 parishes in the whole of the UK  were spared the pain of the deaths of a serviceman sent to fight. The deathtoll was so awful that in France just a single village had all its servicemen return home. Between the wars, the author Arthur Mee coined the term “Thankful Village” for those parishes that had all servicemen return home. Of those 53 parishes, 39 would go on to experience the death of service personel in the second world war, and so there are only 14  villages without war memorials. Just 14 villages in the UK managed to go through  the first half of the 20th century without sacrificing one of their number. These villages would come to be known as “Doubly Thankful”.

_56665437_thankful_villages_464map

The location of Thankful Villages in the UK

I only learned of these terms a few of years ago when during a half-term walk in the countryside I noticed a local village to Bath (Woolley, just off the A46 to the west, as you head down from the M4) had no war memorial and instead a plaque outside the village church described the village as doubly thankful. I was telling a History teacher at school about the village earlier this year and they’d not heard of the term Thankful Village either. I couldn’t remember then how many there were in total – but it was a quick google away on my mobile. But until you know about them, how will you know what to google to find the number of  Thankful Villages, or even find out if there is a Doubly Thankful Village nearby to you?

This is the point about knowledge. You really do need a little, despite it’s dangers, to do anything. You can’t google something you know literally nothing about, where would you start?  If you know a bit, you can quickly reference the obscure details, whether that’s the chemical symbol for protactinium (Pa), the relative atomic mass of tin (118.7), or the county with the most doubly thankful villages (Lincolnshire, 3). But until you know what thankful village or relative atomic mass mean, how to do move on?

I sometimes feel that critics of a knowledge-rich curriculum believe that these dry details are drilled into kids in isolation. That they must remember the relative atomic mass of every element, huge chunks of Shakespeare or the dates of dozens of key battles in the first world war without context. But to me, that’s not how a knowledge curriculum works. These bits of information aren’t drilled in as dry components. They’re part of a rich whole of each subject which allow students to understand the general prinicples of the subjects that they are studying in greater depth. That remembering a few key facts will allow students build fluency in their subject by remembering some important information that is revisited frequently; by remembering the start and end dates of the wars, short quotations of important characters or the relative atomic mass of carbon then students can build fluency to their own answers to questions and not overload their working memory. And finally, they can know the location of knowledge, in exams, essays and life beyond school, they can know where to find the knowledge they want and need. Even if that is, what specifically they need to type into google.

 

 

 

 

 

*Footnote: I’m not really a monster, I am just a pedant, and pedantry wins prizes. And it wins marks in exams, which are like prizes if you think about it. What type of message does it send if we pretend that incorrect answers are actually correct?