Eavesdroppings

I’m sure all teachers must have this experience – overhearing teaching, schools, education etc being discussed on the next table in a cafe or pub. Sometimes what you hear is fascinating or pleasing…  more often, dispiriting or infuriating.

Here are some recent samples:-

Grandma to age 11/12 granddaughter: “Are your teachers fairly bright?”   Now I am sure if the child had reason to think any of her teachers were a bit dim (and let’s be honest, once she’s a teenager, she probably will think that anyway), she’d have decided that without grandma’s intervention. I suspect the net result of this will be to put doubts in her mind where there was no reason for them.  Seems an odd thing to ask a kid of that age, too – easier to judge such things when you are older.

Dad to 13-14 year old daughter “Well, it’s all down to the teacher – that’ll be why you don’t like Latin”. Well, of course a poor teacher can put a child off (though I had 3 dire maths teachers and always loved the subject, so it’s not invariable). But really – would it be natural for a child automatically to love all subjects if it weren’t for those evil teachers putting them off? If the majority of the class like a subject, but a few don’t, is it not more likely that they, like adults, are individuals with tastes and preferences?  And don’t even start me on the idea of encouraging kids to blame the teacher…

Auntie to 10 year old twins out shopping for the new school year “what’s the good of a scientific calculator? Why do they make you get that? You’ll never need all those buttons!”. Just one word. Aaarghhh!

Parents discussing their daughter’s A-level options after GCSE results “I can’t see why they don’t want her to take Maths – she got her GCSE grade C in it – it’s just snobbishness wanting more”.  Why do parents find it so hard to see that we are actually trying to look out for their child, and that years of experience do actually give us some idea what we are talking about? No, it’s not about protecting our academic record – one fail grade amongst many good grades will not spell disaster for us, but it would seriously affect your daughter’s future.  Honestly, we are trying to help.

Father talking to daughter after A-level results “Surely the school can get you in somewhere by calling up? That’s their job, particularly as they didn’t get you the grades!” To her credit, the daughter did try to explain that she had to go through Clearing herself. I so wanted to say – our job is education, advice and guidance. Our job is not getting you grades, jobs or university places. We are here to give you the support and teaching to enable you to make the most of your talents, and to get the grades and offers that your ability and industry warrant – not less, but also not more.

A nice one to end on:

Two mothers discussing their children’s school “You can see they really care about the kids, the way they talk about them. “. Yes – most of us do, you know, some to a huge degree. Lovely that people recognise it.

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Approaching results day…

It’s always the sign that the end (of the holidays) is nigh – A-level results day this Thursday.

As exams officer, I’ll be doing quite a bit about this tomorrow. I have to download the results from the exam boards and import them into our system (this seldom goes completely smoothly – something crashes or doesn’t import and has to be entered manually). Then it all has to be printed out and collated, ready to give the kids on Thursday. I have various documents to prepare or print – explanations of grade boundaries, info on getting re-marks etc.  Of course the results are strictly embargoed at this stage – the kids certainly can’t have them, and only am extremely restricted range of staff can see them. I must confess I do look at how people have done, though – I can’t just regard it as an admin task when it involves pupils I know and particularly those I’ve taught.

This year is going to be particularly interesting as the new AS specifications came in for quite a few subjects, including the sciences, which are taken by the majority of our sixth formers. The content and style of the specification and exams had definitely changed, and many of the kids said the exams were a bit nasty, so it’ll definitely be quite tense looking at those.

I guess I’d get a bit less uptight about results if they weren’t such a political football. I think the government wants to be seen to make things more rigorous, which means, I fear, the law being laid down on what the exam boards can do with grade boundaries.  I know exam boards can get a bad press, but I really would rather have the criteria for an A set by the examining team who’ve actually looked at the papers and have experience of what candidates achieved, rather than some know-it-all politician out to make a point. And of course, this is a no-win situation. If results improve, everyone says exams have got easier. If they don’t improve, teachers aren’t delivering.

I’d always be feeling a bit nervous about how the kids had got on, though, anyway. How could I not? I care about them – I want them to get the university places they’ve set their heart on.  I know some cynics think we teachers are only anxious because of how it reflects on us – but that is absolutely wrong. Sure, if all my class underachieve, I might well get asked a few pointed questions, as would my head of department – but it makes way more difference to them than me how they do, so I’ll be pleased for them if they’ve got what they want, and disappointed if they haven’t, whatever it says on my class’s value-added data.

Of course schools have to be concerned with how their data looks in the league tables. That doesn’t mean that their leadership think it’s more important than the pupils – of course they don’t. It’s because we’re stuck with a damnfool system that regards a school as only as good as its latest results, with no regard for natural variability, context or anything else.

Posted in Day to day school life, Exams, Opinions | 1 Comment

Expertise?

I was talking to someone while waiting for a train the other day (well, to be accurate, I was trying to read my book and they’d decided to make conversation with me). I owned up to being a teacher at some point in the conversation, which was the signal for them to immediately start to share their expertise about teaching with me, based on their experience of explaining a few things to a niece.

Does this happen in other jobs? Do plumbers find people offering insights into pipework, and dentists into root canal treatment? Or is it just us?

I guess almost all of us do have experience teaching something or other to someone or other, and so feel we have some grounds for expertise. But hey, I have some experience cooking, but wouldn’t presume to instruct a chef on it.

Now I may be being a bit of a hypocrite here, because I’ve never been much of a fan of a huge overdose in educational theory as part of teacher training, and I do think some people have the ability to teach pretty well even without being trained to do it.  But that’s a bit different to someone who has never stood in front of a class thinking they have “the answer” to engaging kids, behavioural issues and exam success.  It amazes me how many people do not quite grasp that what you can do with an individual is rather different to what you can do with a class of 20-30 kids, and that you actually cannot teach every child individually.

I’ll tell you the other area on which  Joe (or Jo) Public seems to feel him/herself an instant expert – some parts of science.  Every medical journal out there has shown no link between vaccines and autism – but hey, people who have no medical or scientific training know better! Likewise, the effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide is really pretty uncontroversial in scientific circles, but let’s not believe that because we don’t like the consequences, eh?  It’s obviously better to believe every crank out there rather than someone who actually has the appropriate education and has worked to develop their understanding and knowledge to a high level.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to encourage a ridiculous level of deference to experts, be they teachers, scientists, doctors, economists or whatever. We should always encourage critical thinking and a questioning approach.  But at least try to take an informed critical approach!

 

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Another universal panacea…

BBC Education News is reporting on the introduction of the “Asian Maths Method” to primary schools.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against new approaches, whether they are from Asia, Mars, or the next classroom along. We should always be open-minded, prepared to experiment and to amend what we do.

But what always bugs me is the sloppy thinking. The article talks about functional innumeracy being much lower in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong than in the UK. Yes, that is interesting and perhaps raises some questions. But why assume it is automatically because of the use of a specific method? Couldn’t other factors be more important? For example,  cultural factors such as how education is viewed, how frowned on innumeracy is, and how much support and reinforcement is offered at home can be hugely important to success. And even restricting it to educational methods – would you expect levels of functional innumeracy at 15 to be solely explicable from methods used in primary school? Hey, that’s like saying I can blame my pupils’ GCSE results on their KS2 teachers!

So let’s look at the content. I see it places importance on the use of textbooks rather than worksheets, for a start. I never actually realised that was revolutionary as I’ve been doing it in my classroom all along, and it happened when I was at school too. Of course it is useful to have access to earlier work, and to be able to refer back, or consult worked examples. That is why textbooks are such an old – and long-standing – “technology”.
But thinking practically for a minute –  I assume the schools implementing this “new” approach won’t be allowing the kids to take them home, as unless they can work some sort of miracle, kids will forget them, and sometimes little brothers/sisters or the dog will eat them/remove pages…  Ideally, a home copy and a school copy would be provided, of course, but will that be funded?

They talk about whole-class teaching, and encouraging the higher achievers to gain a “deeper” understanding rather than racing ahead. Yes, sounds fair to me – I’ve never thought it’s a good plan to have your top end studying topics that the rest of the class will come to later, and so deferring their boredom, and agree it’s much better to tackle more thought-provoking material related to the basic topic.  But I will be very interested to hear how this “deeper” understanding is to be achieved. If you are teaching your class about, say, adding fractions, what deeper conceptual grasp can you ask that is not either something you want everyone to learn (eg that you don’t just multiply the denominators to find the LCD) or is really a bit beyond kids in isolation (eg application to algebraic fractions)?  I’m also interested in when there will be space for the extension of the individual in the lesson, given that they are not keen on “slower individual practice” – if I am to acquire a deeper understanding, I need time to tackle tougher problems and/or to read about the concepts.

And yet again, we see reference to “specialist teachers”. Guess what – my maths degree does not make me particularly well suited to teaching a 7 year old how to multiply. We didn’t discuss multiplication in any more depth, actually. Or how kids learn it.     I would agree entirely with concerns about maths in primary (or indeed, secondary) schools being taught by those who are not secure in their own knowledge and understanding – this can result in a rote-learning approach, little flexibility or creativity and a lack of provision for those who wish to go beyond the curriculum, and for those for whom the “standard” explanations do not work. But avoiding these pitfalls does not require a mathematics specialist – it requires a competent, confident teacher who understands the subject thoroughly at the appropriate level.

I have no doubt that the approaches involved in the “Asian method” have their place in the repertoire of the classroom teacher, as do the many other approaches promoted to us over the years. A good teacher will adapt what they do depending on the topic, the class, and even depending on when in the day the lesson is, how far into the term etc. A good teacher will not regard any approach as the universal answer – variety in the educational diet is crucial- we don’t live on educational brussels sprouts alone!

 

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Shared post – Brexit in the Classroom

I don’t normally do sharing or reblogging posts – but I loved this one.
(and yes, I am nailing my colours to the mast here – and yes, I did discuss it with some of my students, though maybe not quite like this!)

 

Today, the Guardian published an article from me about how to deal with students’ Brexit questions. It was very much tongue-in-cheek and made no pretence at neutrality. It was also the much cleaner second version. The first I’ll put here, just for the record.

via Brexit in the Classroom — Disappointed Idealist

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Are good teachers born or made?

This post was inspired by one of the same name on the E-teach blog .  Their article is actually about teacher training and its importance (and well worth reading); however I’m going to focus on the question asked.

As with many such questions – the answer is not clear cut.

Do I think adequate training could turn absolutely anyone into a decent teacher? No, most certainly not. I don’t even think it could turn everyone with the requisite subject knowledge into a decent teacher.

Whatever politicians may think about teaching being some sort of robotic activity where there is a “right” way to do it and a set of optimum lesson plans and activities, in truth it is almost always personality-driven. I’d certainly bet that the teachers you remember the most, it isn’t just about their marking policies or their effective timing, but about how they came across as people.  Teaching is ultimately about interacting with others – encouraging them, motivating them, empathising with them. If I am dealing with a pupil who is finding something hard, I need to try to “get into their head” to see where the problem is, and to help them believe in themselves and go on with confidence. If I am to inspire someone to go further than they dreamed they could, I need to know what makes them tick. If I am to lead by example, I have to show who I am.

That doesn’t mean that all teachers have to have a “big” (or in-your-face) personality – though I think a fair number of the good ones do (as well as some of the bad ones). A teacher needs to be able to find their own way. In a previous school, most of the department were “big” personalities. I saw an NQT try to teach like that, and it just didn’t work for her, because that wasn’t who she was. She managed to find her own, very different style a couple of years down the line, and became a much better teacher.
So I do think there’s an element of “born”. When I did my original degree I met some extremely talented mathematicians who would have been an absolute disaster in the classroom. We cannot assess everything based on qualifications and training.

However, that’s very far from suggesting teacher training is not helpful,relevant, important etc. I was about to say “essential” there, but would have had to accuse myself of rank hypocrisy, as … er…. I taught for 7 years without a teaching qualification and, I think, made a reasonable fist of it. But I still found the training helped me develop new ways of thinking about how to teach, strategies for behaviour management and generally encouraged me to become more of a “reflective practitioner” (excuse trendy buzzwords).

 

 

 

Posted in Pupil relationships, Recruiting teachers | 2 Comments

A rant on exams

This is undoubtedly a sign I am now a permanent resident of Grumpy Old Woman land, rather than just a frequent visitor – but I am fed up with people moaning about exams.

Not only do I hear these complaints from pupils at school, I also get them from fellow OU students. Maybe that’s why I’m reaching saturation point!

Now, before I go further, let me be clear. If you’ve just taken an exam, a degree of therapeutic whinging is probably to be expected, and may be part of peer-bonding, and a guard against appearing to be cocky or arrogant.  Also, there do exist exams where there genuinely is something to shout about – I sat one of those with the OU, and pushed a successful formal complaint through the “complaints and appeals” process, and I know one of my colleagues is keen to pursue a similar complaint about one of the papers his students have taken this year.

There are also exams that are badly set but not to the extent of justifying a formal complaint – those with too many marks resting on recall of a relatively minor part of the specification or those with questions in which people will typically get either full marks or zero with no gradations in between, for example.

But the most common complaints I hear are:  “It wasn’t like the previous papers/ the specimen paper”, “the bits I revised didn’t come up” and “The questions were so hard”.

My answer to that – what do you expect?

  • Exams are not meant to be exactly like previous exams with a number or a word changed here or there.
  • Exams are meant to test your understanding of the material you have studied, not how diligently you have practised past papers or how effectively you have memorised old markschemes.
  • Exams are not meant to allow you to revise selectively – unless there’s a specific intention that you choose particular options, they are meant to make you learn the whole of the specification.
  • It is perfectly legitimate  for an examination to require you to think. It is not just a memory test – you are expected to have a brain that can analyse, apply, evaluate, not just download the contents of your memory to the page
  • Exams should contain hard questions. They are a much more legitimate way to distinguish the top candidates from the rest than whether they can avoid trivial mistakes on easy questions.

Now I am happy to say that exam boards may well have been at fault in the past for setting papers that were a little too routine (and that applies even more to the OU, I am afraid – many courses have very repetitive exams indeed, which do indeed reward obsessive past paper practice above a thorough grasp of the material as a whole).  But they (exam boards) have been moving away  from this for a few years now, and it was always clear the new AS levels would not be like that. But still the expectation of it being like something they’ve seen before lingers on in students (and some teachers).

The other source of the complaints seems to be unrealistic (and in my view, unreasonable) expectations.

When I was at school, I was not a model pupil. There were some subjects I liked, and in which I completed my work diligently. There were others where I didn’t, and when it came to the end of the year exam, I was attempting a last minute revision effort. And there were some subjects I just wasn’t very good at (and I don’t think I put in anything like enough work to get better at them).  The same could undoubtedly be said of many pupils now.

But there is a key difference between now and then. If I hadn’t learnt a subject thoroughly, I didn’t expect a high grade. If I only revised certain areas, and the others came up – well, I was disappointed, but I never thought the fault was with the exam rather than me.  If I wasn’t good at a subject in the year,  I wasn’t surprised to find the exam difficult. Isn’t this obvious?  But time and time again, I see pupils who have got a C or D grade in their mock acting surprised that they couldn’t just walk in and ace the real thing. I see fellow students who really struggled to understand the material expecting that somehow they will get a first class result. Is it just me who finds this bizarre?  Do some people really believe that exam success is some sort of entitlement, irrespective of ability or industry?  We all know that performing well as an athlete requires you to have the talent and put the hours of training in – and that the less of the former you have, the more of the latter is needed.

 

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