All entries for April 2020
April 27, 2020
The end of term was fast approaching and I was, like most, in need of a break. I was so pleased with my progress this term and was very much looking forward to being that one step closer to finishing the course. Then the morning of 22nd March came, my formal observation with my Head of Department. I had avoided having a formal observation with my Head of Department for the past couple of weeks because I wanted to focus on my areas of development and show some improvement.
The lesson came and pretty much everything went wrong. I was settling the class when I realised I was in the wrong classroom and another teacher was lining her class up outside. The starter task took 20 minutes instead of the designated 10, not good when you have decided to include a whole host of activities within the lesson. The students did not seem their usual, engaged selves and I was faced with 30 distant looking faces staring at me. Let me confirm here, these faces were not that of students who were gripped and mesmerized by my teaching, more disengaged and most likely thinking about what they were having for lunch that day from the school canteen. The activities were unappealing and you could see that the students were not impressed as they dismissively wafted the worksheets I gave them and looked at me as if to say “Miss, why are we doing this?” At this point, I received several echoes of “Miss, what do we have to do again?” It is fair to say at this point, I knew things were not going great and I wanted to run out of the classroom; I have never wanted a fire alarm to have go off, anything to leave the lesson. I could picture my Head of Department highlighting the boxes on my observation form, and I just knew that this was not going to be the result I had hoped for. After delivering my verbal feedback she slid the form across the desk; I felt embarrassed and disappointed. I folded the form up and placed it in my bag with the plan to shred it as soon as I got home.
That evening, I was sorting my planner out and I found the observation sheet inside it. I was thinking about the lesson and the bemused faces of my students throughout. I was frustrated that a lesson on Civil Rights with a class usually so involved was so flat. Then I thought about the planning process. Usually, I plan my lessons with the focus in mind and then decide on tasks I know my students will respond to. I didn’t do that on this occasion, I planned to please my observer and ultimately, I planned with ‘outstanding’ in mind, not my students; I had taken a step backwards. Recently, I had changed how I planned which meant that my lessons were more engaging for my students and they were central to the planning process, unfortunately the observer did not see the students at their best because I had prevented that from happening. If I had thought about the tasks properly, I would have known that they would not have bought the best out of my students. However, despite taking a step backwards here, I decided to use this lesson to move forwards. Yes, you could argue I was making the same mistakes as I was in September, however, I was reflecting on them differently and able to identify the problems. I made a promise to myself after this lesson that I would resume my usual planning process and focus on having the foresight to know what tasks would get the best out of my students. This observation highlighted to me the importance of everything I had learnt, sometimes you do need to step backwards to move forwards.
April 20, 2020
When facilitating class discussions, I was asking the same questions, ‘what do you think of this?’ or ‘how is this historical event important?’ I wanted a strategy that allowed students to identify where an answer could be challenged or developed without me asking the questions. The card technique was recommended to me by a colleague and I decided to try it out.
I gave students cards with ‘challenge’ written on one side and ‘develop’ on the other. Students were invited to hold up the cards when they wanted to challenge or develop their peer’s answer. Students could use these throughout the lesson. Additionally, I would begin a discussion with a basic question for example, ‘why was the Gunpowder plot important?’ Immediately, I found myself facilitating discussions and my students were leading them. My role changed from asking various questions to simply selecting students by name; the student voice increased greatly!
Instantly, students were looking for ways to challenge or develop one another’s answers. The quality of response improved as they were explaining their points in greater detail. On occasions, I would find myself gesturing to students to keep talking so they developed their response. From a teaching perspective, I was able to observe my students debating with each other rather than thinking of questions to encourage discussion. The challenge and develop cards help to improve students written work too because when I mark their books and write ‘how can you develop this answer further?’ or ‘how could your argument be challenged?’ students have a better idea of what I am referring too. If on occasions students found this difficult, I would direct them to the discussions we had in lessons to prompt their thinking. Particularly for higher attaining students it provides an opportunity for them to access higher order thinking skills. By challenging, they are analysing and evaluating arguments. I have since used this strategy with my other classes and it has been a success too.
April 06, 2020
Chemistry is an abstract subject riddled with possible misconceptions and areas for confusion. One of the educationalists who made great contributions to tackling this was a Scotsman, Alex Johnstone. He approached chemical education from an information processing perspective, which views the mind in a similar way to a computer. The best way to deliver chemistry to young people, he argued, was to introduce challenging ideas in a concrete way first of all. There is perhaps no more concrete of examples to students than food and drink, and these have worked wonders for engagement and understanding.
To demonstrate the concept of conservation of mass in chemical reactions, it is common to carry out reactions on scales to show that mass is not created or destroyed. Inspired by Johnstone, I instead bought a pack of microwave popcorn and asked my Year 10 pupils to predict whether the mass of the pack would go up or down, or stay the same. To my surprise, the pack lost mass as well as whetting the appetite of the class before lunch. Students explained that this was caused by the pack not being air tight, allowing steam to escape. When it came to chemical reactions, they had little difficulty then applying their knowledge to explain mass changes in open and closed systems.
Popcorn typically goes down well with a drink however, and it was a 2L bottle of Pepsi Max which served me in demonstrating trends in the Periodic Table to both Year 8 and Year 10 classes. Using the bottle as an electron, I asked one student to hold onto it closely while another tried to take it off them. Of course, the ‘electron’ was held. I then asked the student to hold the bottle at full arm’s length, and repeated the exercise. The bottle was easily taken, and each class managed to use this to explain why elements lose their electrons more easily as their atoms get bigger.
Last but not least, chocolate. When tasked with teaching bottom set Year 10 classes about chemical formulations, I looked to the ‘concrete first’ approach for help. Chocolate is a complex formulation of cocoa, sugar, milk, and other ingredients, and the composition affects how it looks, tastes, and feels. My technicians were able to find the best white, milk and dark chocolate money could buy at Asda, and the students did the rest. Initially in disbelief at being allowed to eat chocolate in a science lesson, the students made excellent observations about how the different chocolates tasted, snapped, and melted. Students with usually very weak literacy skills used a wide range of good words to describe what they saw and relate these to the formulation of the chocolate.
The research literature shows that understanding is stronger if the learner actively engages with new information. In turn, this is more likely if that information is presented in relevant and relatable contexts. For this approach, Dr Johnstone, both my students and I have you to thank.
The biggest contributors to 'meaningful learning' and its relation to engagement were Ausubel and Novak and a nice research paper, looking at students doing compulsory chemistry at American universities available freely, is: Grove, N.P. and Bretz S.L. 2012, A continuum of learning: from rote memorization to meaningful learning in organic chemistry Chemistry Education Reseasrch and practice, 13, 201-208 Accessed via: http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2012/RP/C1RP90069B#!divAbstract (you may need to cut and paste this into your browser)