B9 summary pt II

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Educational bottlenecks

ResearchED 2017 Session 1: When the maths hit the fan

Despite this session being centred around the impact of the new maths GCSEs, I thought it would be interesting to gain the perspective of maths teachers and specialists on their experiences of the new approach. The Institute of Ideas hosted the session, with a panel of Dr Jennie Golding, Dr Sara Humphries and Joanne Morgan. My overall impression from the initial discussion was that there was a general feeling that the maths syllabus as it was needed an update, the new take on things gave neither enough time to cover all areas, did not work for students who found maths difficult and seemed in places unconnected. All of which sounds familiar to science teachers across Continue reading “Educational bottlenecks”

Known unknowns

I’m currently reading Tim Shipman’s ‘All out War’, an account of the 2016 EU referendum. Early on he suggests that three of the major actors in what would become the dismal drama that has soaked the social and political stage for the last 18 months were influenced strongly by their earlier personal experiences. Chancellor Merkel, he suggests, was strongly in favour of free movement of people after experiencing the restrictions of growing up in East Germany. Party-hopping Douglas Carswell’s upbringing under Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda developed his sense of ‘libertarianism’ and Daniel Hannan’s viewing of an interview with the Latvian foreign minister who claimed ‘Yes, Latvia is now more independent than the United Kingdom’ cemented his desire to leave the EU. It seems trite to point out that our past experience and perception colour our worldview and ideology, and perhaps the author and/or people involved are overestimating the importance of these events in moulding their attitudes. Regardless, the idea that personal experience influences decision making processes and ideology deserves consideration.

Across the country right now eager Year 13 students are no doubt practising their double-feet-raised jumps in anticipation of A level results day, Continue reading “Known unknowns”

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.