I’m well aware of the limitations of anecdotes, particularly when it comes to the current educational morass. I can however contribute something to the debate over the debate over the approach to maths GCSE, namely questions over what I shall call (for the sake of convenience) a discovery led approach. You see dear reader, I experienced such a course as a pupil, and by golly I got myself a grade A.
Some context. I took my GCSEs Continue reading “How I got a grade A GCSE maths using problem solving and discovery.”
Being from a science subject background, I wouldn’t be surprised if anything I’m about to say strikes someone from a humanities background as so strikingly and stupidly obvious that I’d hear the slap of palms on foreheads from hundreds of miles away, but here it is anyway. Last week’s Twitter war over exclusions made me think again about an idea I first came across (via Twitter again…) in a completed unrelated to education way – intersectionality. A caveat; the idea, as far as I understand it, came from feminist explanations (an area where I can claim little expertise) for power and influence. If I may be so bold as to boil down how I interpret it, intersectionality looks at how an individual’s experiences and identity should be considered to be influenced by multiple and interacting factors, for example the experience of an affluent woman of colour in the workplace could be different to a white woman with the same level of affluence in the same workplace. I’m paraphrasing of course and reiterate my inadequate understanding of the all the issues involved, but I’m thinking in terms of the things I do have experience of (school systems) and I think the concept has relevance.
Take the example of poverty. Many teachers will be aware of the subtle, long lasting and pernicious effects that low income can have on students. Many others will also claim that poverty (however we wish to define it) should not necessarily determine outcome. This is certainly easy to anecdotally defend and evidence can be found by looking at the proxy of disadvantaged students (the Ever 6 FSM measure) and pointing to cases where ‘poverty’ has not influenced outcome. Yet this can ignore other factors at play. For example, poverty, though it can be reduced to a measure such as parental income, does not necessarily show up the factors involved in coming to that point. Parental illness, long term cultural factors, immigration, historical low aspirations, mental health, ethnicity, prejudice and so on and on could all influence to varying degrees the experience of poverty. To isolate one factor may be intellectually dishonest, as in the ‘my family were poor and I still managed to do X and Y’, with its hidden assumption of ‘So why can’t everyone else?’ or the more aggressive ‘If you can’t do what I did the problem must be you.’
As an additional confounding factor, some people of course can emulate success from a more challenging starting point if given the right support, whether that is through caring, structured guidance or the proverbial boot up the backside. The problem comes when people start to think that what worked for them should work for everyone else, that their own particular blend of experiences and influences are typical and are experienced by everyone else. From either the positon of the classroom teacher, management or even the DfE a viewpoint can become generalised to ‘it works in this situation, so why not all of them?’ Are the students who do well in our classes more in line with our own experiences and the ones who don’t get it and struggle simply coming backgrounds unfamiliar to us?
There is a limit to how far we can take this pragmatically. I’m not planning a different lesson for 30 Year 10 kids no matter how aware I am of their differences. I think it matters more that I am aware that there are differences than trying to account for them, and as long as I try to support students (kids absolutely pick up very quickly on the teachers who will help them and the ones who don’t/won’t) it should be enough. The classroom short cut is to put kids in to compartments (quiet, hard-working, immature, naughty) and we need to do this to a degree because in that situation we are often dealing with groups and not individuals which requires that approach. Nevertheless, the hard-worker can be anxious, the immature student mean, the naughty child anxious and any other number of permutations. The whole is the sum of many interacting and changing parts. Simplifying may be necessary at times but it is not the real picture.
Being a member of (late) Generation X, I’m fairly familiar with video games. I had an Atari 2600 (still got my Uncle’s old one kicking around that I should really fix), and later a Commodore 64 (albeit when friends with more disposable income were moving onto Amigas…). I never really got the console thing, Nintendo and Sega pretty much passed me by, but eventually the advent of PlayStation 1 in my post-student years brought some of the old magic back. This is not however a post about the relative merits of various games (Head over Heels on 8 bit is indisputable), but the possibility of taking what is undeniably one of the most popular pastimes for young people and let’s be blunt here, for that perennial progress problem, young males. Is it possible to extract the juice from whatever makes a game not just enjoyable but potentially addictive and smother it liberally all over our lessons?
There’s no doubt that gaming is now not just popular as an activity but also massive business. I’d suspect that a significant chunk of the money generated by the UK’s creative industry can be traced back to videogames. Developer Rockstar North, based in Edinburgh, was behind the hugely successful/controversial Grand Theft Auto V. Although historically seen as more popular among young males, gaming has shown the potential to reach out across all age groups and genders. People are quite willing to spend hours (and pump in pounds) to games as diverse as Animal Crossing, Candy Crush, Call of Duty and the yearly Fifa games. What’s keeping people in the game?
There have been some rather dubious claims about the benefits of gaming, from improving hand-eye coordination (it probably does, for a particular type of game) or that it improves problem solving skills (ditto – however problem solving seems to be highly domain specific rather than a general skill. Your ability to tile rows in Tetris doesn’t translate into the ability to reach maze 255 in Pac-Man).
One teacher friend of mine a few years ago asked his students about their experience of gaming and intriguingly found that most of the boys preferred the short, 10-15 minute games of online competition like Call of Duty or Fifa. This strikes me as an example of a very short-term and clearly defined game where you can instantly judge yourself against other people but that failure is not long-term, in fact it lasts only until the next game where you have the opportunity to correct last time’s low ranking. The feedback from success and failure is instant and easily understood by the player. Even the ranking system is only temporary, with the ever-present promise of improving next time and wiping out the pain of a bottom place on a leaderboard.
What would this translate to in a classroom? It’s not too difficult to conceive of very short-term goals or discrete tasks that could then be built into larger understanding (for example the amount of cognition needed to construct a graph can be overwhelming for some students but it can be approached by working on one or two components at a time. Of course this is a familiar approach in maths teaching where concepts and skills can be scaffold to build a larger understanding but not so often seen in other subjects where I think teachers can take the expert, wider view of a topic and forget how it is constructed from smaller parts. As for the ranking, there are many problems in the classroom with this and it is not a tool to be used lightly, but there can be benefits in allowing students to see where they are in relation to other students. I will often indicate performance in tests by talking about a mean score and a top score for the class/year. Students know if they haven’t done well but don’t necessarily need their faces rubbing in it.
What may be more interesting is that many games today are so large and complex, particularly the online multiple player games they require longer term goals. It can take tens if not hundreds of hours of dedicated gameplay for players to reach achievements or levels, even if those achievements offer little more than arbitrary trophies or imaginary points. This is a little more in line with the education experience – potential pay-offs are long-term. What is crucially different is that students cannot see how smaller tasks build towards their achievement. Progress for students is a patchy, frustrating process and it is hard to see from their perspective inside the system that they are getting better. There is no real life bar across the bottom of the screen charting how well they are doing or what they have achieved so we rely on often inadequate proxies of stickers and test scores to convince students that they are really getting better. Yet in games we see the phenomena of ‘grinding’, where players will spend hours and hours completing simple repetitive tasks that gradually increase scores. The farming referred to in the title is a particular type of grinding where players are trying to secure items in the game, in other words a specific reward rather than just to increase a level.
So why aren’t students prepared to farm knowledge and skills in the classroom, particularly resisting those areas that just seem like dull, monotonous repetition? I think again that it is the speed of feedback and the clarity of a specific short term goal that is not easily reproducible (or necessarily desirable) in teaching. Yet imagine a course that regularly assessed students in a controlled way e.g. online that did allow them to build up a score towards a qualification so they could see what they are achieving as they go on an almost lesson-by-lesson basis. I can imagine that an argument against this would be that very short term assessments don’t lead to larger understanding or the ability to deal with more complex ideas, but I think that underestimates how much skills and knowledge are actually composed from smaller parts that are pieced together. There’s obviously something powerful in the feeling of immediate and quickly correctable feedback that can encourage students. But simply noticing that something works in one context absolutely does not guarantee it will work in another. I’m sure some subjects would suit this approach better than others. Just please, no teacher ‘assessments’.
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”
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”