Scalable and non-scalable subjects

There is a way to consider mastering a skill as a series of three stages. Take the example of learning the piano. When you first sit in front of those keys every one of them is much the same as another. Sure, some are white and some are black, and you might notice that the black keys have a slightly irregular pattern to them, but you could probably pick your way towards a simple, delightful tune with a few minutes of pecking around. A note is just a note. Spend some real-time getting to know things however, and you discover that the notes can be grouped together into scales, and that some notes sound better in some combination than others, some seem to follow others, and that there is a whole set of rules regarding which note goes where and when in order to build up into incredible moments of grandeur and magic. The musical rules of modes and scales are the framework upon which you construct your music. Go further however, and something more profound happens. Scales and modes begin to dissolve, you find out which rules can be bent and which rules can be broken. Perhaps there were no rules to begin with. Any note is still just a note.

Students are on this never-ending journey too, not necessarily as potential pianists but in whatever skill or subject they turn their minds towards. Our role as teachers may occur at any point along the journey, whether we be the first person to introduce a child to a subject or salute as they surpass anything we ever achieved. But we still have to get them there.

I have spent a lot of time observing, supporting and working with teachers from different subjects. Its usually a very useful experience, but I’ve found that once you are away from the comfort of your own specialism different circumstances come into play. The underlying thinking, structures and ideologies of different subjects can vary hugely. It’s very easy to man the barricades of your own subject and blindly throw accusatory grenades over the top that essentially boil down to ‘in order to improve your lesson you should do it like we do in subject X!’ Good luck with that strategy.

Something I think is useful to consider here is the scalability of a subject. A scalable subject works at both a simple and an advanced level, whereas a non-scalable subject tends towards having fixed limits. Before you raise the objection that there are no limits to any subject, let me assure you I think all subjects have elements of both, but allow me an example.

I would consider English to be essentially a scalable subject. The level of entry is fairly low (excepting young students with genuine language difficulties) because students are (hopefully) familiar with speaking to people, listening, story structure and so on. Yes there are differences and EAL and and and but for the bulk of students the essential ‘elements’ necessary to access the subject are already present: language knowledge. But where does English lead to – there is no end. It can be scaled up from the ability to write ‘what I did at the weekend’ to a Pulitzer Prize winning piece, to get from a ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ to ‘Happy families are all alike…’ is not one that can be done by methodical steps but by an unbounded leap.

So what would a non-scalable subject look like? Well, of course we’re going to science as a prime example. As a taught subject at GCSE and A level (and most of degree level to be honest) it doesn’t really scale up. Compare how many students at your school excel at county or even national level in sports or the arts and compare that to the number of students excelling in the field of science at a national level. I’ll set the class timer for 10 seconds. Science, as we teach it, is non-scalable at this level. There is a a clearly defined set of statements that are assessed and if you know them well enough to apply them to an unfamiliar situation, well, congratulations, achievement unlocked and move onto the next level. Students in non-scalable subjects are like people at the beginning of learning something, they simply don’t understand the ‘elements’ (or as science teachers would call it the content) to start doing anything with it. This is why there is often such a s heavy emphasis on leaning basic content because most students can’t build to anything more complex until they have got past those first mastery stages. There is a high entrance level to access non-scalable subjects, but once you’ve got it the end point is pretty clear. MFL is a clear counterpoint here – how much story writing and poetry analysis goes on at GCSE level in MFL? I don’t actually know, but I’d take a stab in the dark at ‘not much’. Without the ‘content’ of Spanish linguistics, grammar and culture you’re Don Qixote studies won’t get too far.

In the long run you could argue any subject becomes scalable but school students are rarely at that point in their school life for them to have the grounding in content necessary for them to excel in a non-scalable subject. There are non-scalable elements to be found in all subjects of course (there aren’t too many proponents of encouraging creativity in grammar and spelling). If you are working with colleagues in other subject areas go in with an awareness of differences and work with the other teacher. Scalable subjects tend to be much easier to access but there is the trap of staying at the lower levels and being satisfied. Our job often involves taking the students through the less exciting middle level of mastery, not the thrill of first discovery or the incredible heights but the grind of familiarity and fluency. Not all subjects start in the same place nor end in the same place. Don’t assume your experience or subject is Universal.






Author: Mr Whellan's science

Nomadic science teacher

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