Welcome to teacher's tonic

Welcome to my blog. I am a teacher who is committed to keeping my teaching fresh, my approach to learning informed and my classroom practice high quality. My aim is to provide readers of this blog with some insights direct from my classroom. I'll blog about activities and approaches I have used that I think are worth sharing. I'll also blog about plans I have to turn ideas into practical activities and update with insights into whether or not these worked. This is a blog for the thinking teacher.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Group tasks as a solution to the “climate crisis”

Inspired by educationalist Sir Ken Robinson’s recent TED Talks presentation entitled “Bring on the revolution!I started to think about how his “climate crisis” of human resources might be averted. In his talk Sir Ken suggests that few people really enjoy what they do because individual’s talents and aptitudes are not given an opportunity to rise to the surface and flourish in current educational settings. Student’s strengths as learners are likely to arise in tasks with less structure and where there might be a number of possible ways to approach the task; learning environments Sir Ken would describe as “organic”. Generally students seem to enjoy collaboration and benefit from being able to talk about their learning so the trusty group activity seems a good place to start.

In any collaborative task it is a good idea to make clear the intended goal of the group activity, for example:
  • In 10 minutes you need to be able to identify what your group thinks are the 3 biggest influences on the success of a new business
  • In 30 minutes you need to be able to carry out a pilot study using the group to your right as your test participants for an investigation to answer the research question in the envelope provided
  • In 10 minutes you need to be confident that each member of your group can give an accurate weather forecast in French at the start of next lesson

In an ideal world as teachers we should be able to sit back - I mean circulate of course ;) – while the students draw on a range of skills to complete the task and be able to talk about the process and transfer these skills to other contexts. Wishful thinking…?

People have different strengths but we often focus on the weaknesses. With strengths in mind then, how can a group task be organised enough to be productive but loose enough to give students a variety of real opportunities to draw on their talents and find new strengths?

Here are 2 ideas for consideration:
Idea 1: Try not to over-control the task but build in time to reflect at intervals and circulate round groups to ask students what they are all doing at that current point and how it is contributing to the group’s completion of the task. This will keep the students on task and accountable but will avoid removing the creativity from the way in which a group choose to go about the task and use their time. This reflection could be achieved using a drama technique called “freeze frame” where groups could be asked to listen out for the sound of a camera shutter indicating time to stop or freeze. A member of each group could be asked to step out of the group huddle and summarise what each group member is doing, inviting feedback from other group commentators. This affords an opportunity to highlight the likely diversity in approaches.

Idea 2: Remove at times students from the group for intervals who seem to dominate or look to be the lynch pin to create a little intentional unrest. Students who have strengths in certain areas that were not getting the chance to exercise these skills might be more likely to do so now. Reintroduce the lynch pin but with a secret task to identify a strength of each person in their group that has surprised them. Their time out from the group could be spent in a coaching style conversation with the teacher and other group “lynchpins”. They could also be given a short related task, where they need to collaborate with other strong personalities, to encourage other strengths/talents to be brought to the table.

Providing students frequent opportunities to try new things and approaches, but have a choice in this process, is likely to go some way to ensuring that students recognise their strengths and talents and are able to maximise these. Using activities such as those described here as ways to look out for personal and learning talents and strengths in your students - that might not always show themselves in the classroom - means that future learning opportunities can be designed with individuals strengths in mind and choices can be offered that capitalised these individuals diverse aptitudes.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Aural starters may help develop Treasured conscious listening skills

Inspired by Julian Treasure (sound researcher and international conference speaker) in his TED Talks lecture – “5 ways to listen better”, July 2011 - I got thinking about how his goal of teaching listening skills in schools (a skill he thinks is dwindling in a world where the volume is stuck on high) might be achievable in my classroom. Swapping the trusty image/picture starter for an aural starter activity seems a relatively simple way to get started.

Instead of displaying an image and asking students “What’s going on here?” as a lesson starter, play them a sound. Ask students to explain what they think they might be hearing and justify their suggestions. Encourage them to break down the sound and listen out for subtle cues or changes and replay the sound a few times to help this.
You could provide prompt questions (e.g. “did you hear the drip…?” for example, or “did you notice the rise in volume in the middle?”) to help students focus in on subtleties. Alternatively you could provide a list of suggestions of what the sound is to choose from. Students could, after the first listen, identify what they might listen out for next time to help narrow the field of choices; each time the sound is repeated (possibly with more elements added) the students will be refining their choices and getting closer to reaching a conclusion. This could be left deliberately ambiguous to build in challenge.

The activity could be an individual one, with quality silences in between each play of the sound to avoid distraction and help focus on thinking, or as a collaborative group task where students also have to listen to each other to work towards a common goal.

The sound used could be unrelated to the lesson content to focus on the skill itself, or could even be a sound that links to the concepts to be explored in the lesson (without making identification of the sound too predictable of course and reducing the need to listen carefully). As an extension, students could be asked to compare and contrast 2 sounds, just as they might be asked to do with 2 visual stimuli; quite challenging but a real stretching activity which would be highly likely to end up with learners drawing on a range of subject areas. The activity could also be used to teach concepts related to bias by providing a context prior to hearing the sound that leads them down a particular, perhaps incorrect path. This could be a good way to show that previous experience can colour our perception of events. The context could be different for different groups of students which would provide a clear demonstration to show that we don’t always all hear the same thing from the same source. Being a good listener after all, rests on being able to put aside your own views, beliefs and preconceptions when required.
As the task is first and foremost a listening one, it would be important to ensure the goal doesn’t become getting the answer right (guessing the sound correctly) but instead focusses on helping students reflect on their listening skills and transfer what they have learned about listening to other learning situations.

Microsoft Office online has free downloadable sound files that could be used. On his blog Julian Treasure suggests a project called “Savouring” where students record sounds they like and bring them in to class to discuss them; this could double up as a way to build up a bank of sounds for future use.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Using student's questions as a measure of learning quality

I recently attended a conference, where I was lucky enough to hear both Hywel Roberts and Guy Claxton independently deliver thought provoking presentations on the challenges of creating effective learners who take responsibility for their learning. I can't recall which of the speakers made the suggestion, but an interesting idea was highlighted. The idea was to ask a peer - I'm thinking this could even be a rotating student role (I'll let you know when I've tried it!) - to record the questions asked by the students throughout the course of the lesson. Students who are learning and are an active part of this process - indeed the central part - should have questions born of an eagerness to learn more. The focus currently in lesson observations tends to be on teacher questions - "why" versus "what", for example, in the pursuit of deep thinking. Students who have questions, and who are able to share them, are taking control of their learning and engaging in discussion with their teacher rather than simply sipping at the spoon being predictably waved in front of them. A lesson with no questions is probably too safe, too teacher-led and is likely to be hindering students development as truly self motivated, independent learners. The list of questions can then be used as a tool for evaluation and review. The peer observer, therefore, simply records the questions and does not offer judgement or criticism.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Update on Spiral Curriculum

Several weeks later my Psychology spiral curriculum is well under way. My students seem to be engaged, they have a good retention of concepts (helped with some loop cards or follow me activities - inspired by my days as a Maths teacher) and seem to feel motivated to build on the topics further. When we return in September we will move onto layer 1 of the final topic area. I'll update with layer 2 when we're back at school.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Creative recall testing: activity idea

Following from my previous post about the value of recall testing, I used this activity as a creative way to apply the findings of research to my thinking classroom.
  1. Prepare a list of key terms or phrases derived from the previously studied material. Cut these up onto individual cards or pieces of paper and hand out to students (who should be in small groups e.g. 4's) face down in a pile (shuffled, the cards not the students obviously!).
  2. Students take turns to reveal a key term and explain to the group it's relevance, meaning etc. Students should create a pile of any terms which cannot be confidently elaborated on, or where there is any disagreement. This pile highlights points for later clarification (make sure there is sufficient differentiation in the terms included).
  3. Once students have covered all the terms (around 16 if they are in 4's) they should look in their notes to answer their own queries. Circulate to ensure you pick up any common or unexpected issues to explore as a class.
  4. Finally ask students to choose a group member to rotate to the next group in an agreed direction. This student will strive to find the answers to any remaining queries generated by their group. Students may rotate around each group before their queries are answered if one exchange is not sufficient.
This task was valuable as it was engaging, ensured the group collaborated towards a common goal, gave each student opportunity to take part in a recall test without feeling like they were being tested and allowed opportunity for teacher and self assessment of understanding and consolidation of learning in an active student-centred task. The whole task took about 25 minutes which left time for a written task in this 1 hour lesson.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The value of recall testing in the modern classroom

According to research carried out by the University of Washington (Roediger, Karpicke 2006) "Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention". The study in question showed that participants who undertook several recall tests retained more information (long term) than participants who completed further study of the material without taking the further recall tests. What can we - or rather students - do with this information in and outside of the classroom? The modern teacher, committed to providing students with opportunities for deep learning and extension may have turned their back on simple recall tasks to assess retention of concepts, especially at A Level. In the words of the researchers "testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it". As teachers we often try to encourage students to test themselves regularly, to improve retention and future learning, but this finding might just give this advice a bit more weight!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Using Bruner's spiral curriculum to teach A2 Psychology

When an A Level curriculum is organised into chunks to be worked through in a set order, there is always the risk that retention of early topics is compromised. This can mean that revision taking place at the end of the course is unproductive. It seems that what should be a time for extension ends up resembling re-teaching, as students have forgotten the topic they first studied. The spiral curriculum (as inspired by Bruner) is offered as a solution to this in the teaching of KS3 and 4 Maths - revisiting concepts and skills regularly building on previous learning. I propose that a mini spiral curriculum can overcome the difficulties facing students in retaining weighty topics in a subject like A Level Psychology. I plan to approach this in in 3 layers. Round 1 opens the students eyes to the concepts, key terms and the fundamental proposals of theorists of the topic in hand - hinting at research findings and issues to spark interest. Round 2 explores where this knowledge comes from by focusing on research design and the role of evidence in science. Round 3 gives students opportunity to apply their knowledge of approaches, issues and debates in Psychology and develop their analytical skills in both verbal and written form. In theory, memories of the concepts in the 3 topics studied will all be relatively more recent than in the traditional topic by topic delivery of this unit. This approach can be applied to any topic or unit of study in any subject area. Watch this space to find out how it goes!