Diff’rent Strokes

Every now and then I find I come across a comment or idea in education, usually expressed in an off-hand way, which reminds me of the shallowness of my educational knowledge. At last September’s researchED for example, Phillippa Cordingley at last September’s researchED fielded a question from the audience about something to do with fire-fighting in year 11 and made a quick remark about the emotional boost that you teachers can get from the process. I thought there was a fascinating insight there into why some school level policies become favoured or entrenched, but she had already moved on to the next part of the question and didn’t expand further. Likewise, last week while idly scanning through Twitter feeds I saw a group of primary school teachers discussing the potential need for subject specialists at primary school level, when someone (@heymisssmith I think, though she could have been retweeting) said something along the lines of “Imagine if Year 7 teachers had to teach all of the subjects in the way Year 6 do.” It suddenly seemed such an obvious difficulty that I’d never even thought to consider before. But why would I? I’m don’t teach Yr6 (thank goodness for mine and their sakes, probably) but it sharply pulled into focus the difference between one area of education and another. More specifically, it highlighted the widening gaps in education between Key Stage 2 and 3 and even between subject specialists. As secondary schools drill down more and more, the common ground slips away.

Last week I spent three hours at a regional teachmeet attended by around 130 people, a mixture of teachers and education groups. I’d estimate the number of secondary teachers to be less than 20. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it did mean the night ended up with a slant more towards primary schools. What was interesting was that I would guess at least half of the presentation time dealt with one area; writing for entertainment. For the sake of transparency I will say that my initial perception of this was rather dispiriting. Secondary science teachers will be familiar with the difficulty of getting students to write at length with any clarity on any science subject, let alone answering a six mark question coherently. The ability to parse and create technical or scientific writing is something that I suspect is not touched on that much at primary schools. I have come across plenty of well-intentioned literacy work that seems to come from the basic premise that students can write in any subject if you just use the techniques drawn from writing for entertainment. The majority of it is unusable without the background science knowledge and even then is difficult to get anything resembling a coherent piece because to write at length requires lots of knowledge. Is the inability of students to write content-heavy work limited by primary schools spending so much time on writing for entertainment?

To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know how writing is taught and developed at KS1 And KS2, and I assume the people presenting on that night did know more than me. It’s easy to look at the KS2 science predictions and sometimes wonder if chicken entrails and tea leaves have been employed to generate the data. But the truth is I don’t know how these things are assessed at primary school, whether good or bad. Personally I’d prefer some form of standardised test but if primary school teachers have a reason for not using this approach then it is their call (though I think secondary teachers shouldn’t be ties to predictions which go back to KS1). You can’t blame KS1 and KS2 for the system they find themselves in.  On reflection I was perhaps too hasty in thinking too much time was spent on one of the four writing areas in primary school. But at least now I know part of what goes on at KS1 and 2.

Yet it’s not just between schools; the problem extends across subjects. There is precious little knowledge of how different areas of the curricula work. Unlike retail, where staff and management can work in different departments and gain an understanding of the issues and strengths, there isn’t much opportunity to do this in schools. The subjects are siloed in this respect, though it must be added that I’m not a particular fan of cross-curricula teaching because it tends to just become ‘this is what we’d do anyway’ and I suspect the benefits to staff are not large. And when departments do work together, it often highlights the difference in approaches. Last year when looking at the new statistics component of the A level Biology course I spent some time with the head of maths looking at what they teach. It was useful in the sense that I could see they approached it quite differently and I would have to make clear to students where the differences where. Separate exam boards probably didn’t help either. I still come across plenty of examples of differences in mathematical approaches across KS3-5 that differ between science and maths which you might assume to be a natural fit and speak a lingua franca. Even the language used between staff has little common ground. I remember a confusing five minute argument with a friend (English teacher) which only resolved when we discovered we both had a completely different interpretation of the term ‘content’ in our heads. How many other disagreements come from lack of clarity or misunderstood terminology?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but getting exposed to different areas of teaching can surely only be a good thing. A (now retired) Ofsted inspector once told me that during an observation in a school he overheard another inspector say something along the lines of ‘the lesson wasn’t outstanding because the students didn’t do a presentation of their work’. I think he was as exasperated with that sentiment as many teachers would be. I suspect that it came from the mindset that ‘this is how it’s done in my subject area’. I suggest this kind of thinking contributed to a large amount of Ofsted’s variable lesson observation criteria in the past. How many of us breathed a sigh of relief when you found out someone on the Ofsted team was from your subject area? There’s a reason for that. Other teachers and other subjects will do it differently to you. That might not be a bad thing.

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Author: Mr Whellan's science

Nomadic science teacher

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