So what’s really going on in your lesson?

I often find that as I mull over what to write two or three things I have come across will come together and spark off a train of thought.  So it is this week.  The first was a guest post by a student, Amy on and the second was reading a considerable number of letters from children to other children, the majority of which were written during lessons.  Now letter writing is to be encouraged but I cannot help feeling that the science, maths and ICT teachers in whose lessons these were written might find them a slight embarasssment.  ( I should point out that they were not written by pupils at my school and that none of them were written in Design Technology lessons.)  

  Amongst other things Amy says, “I’m used to having someone say: This is the minimum. If you do this, you will a C. I don’t want C work, I want A work. I want you to give me all you’ve got. I’m used to being expected to produce work that I’m proud of, not work that passes under minimum inspection.”  Her plea as a gifted and talented student who really feels that the system is stacked against her because she desperately wants to learn to her maximum is heartfelt and should make every classroom teacher pause and review their practice.  The feedback the article has already received is fascinating and makes some very good points; it is almost impossible to differentiate for every child, it is really challenging to make work accessible to all and yet challenging, it is reasonable to expect a learner of this calibre to make some of the going on their own, it is inevitable that education systems that measure success on a normal distribution curve will force the focus onto those who just might make the grade at teh expense of those who are easily going to get an A and it is true that an A grade only has a limited and specific value.

Nonetheless I found myself wincing as I read what Amy has written; what if she were my student?  Would she still feel neglected and wish for more from my teaching?  I will come clean here and say that while the sort of activity that we regard as high  quality in Design Technology is capable of stretching our pupils to an enormous degree I am aware that in many lessons it does not do so.  I also believe that independent learning is so much a part of what we do that, difficult though it may be to organise, facilitate and manage it is an inherent skill for many teachers in design and the arts.  I have discussed in a previous post, “The question is…” how some subject communities struggle to ask high order questions and the same is true for independent learning.  A colleague of mine had argued for years that the demands of teaching truly independent project work to a group of pupils is a real challenge, coming across a geography teacher slumped in his chair at the end of the day he asked him what the problem was and the answer came, “I have just had fifteen pupils working on independent tasks for their project and it’s exhausting!”   My colleague tells me that he simply pointed his finger and walked away, point made.

So time to face the question, would Amy and those like her find my lessons boring?  How many letters get written during lessons in my room?   I would like to think that Amy would not get bored and that letters don’t get written so how can I justify my confidence?  There are several things I could say here, my regular lesson observations when senior colleagues watch my teaching are judged according to some stringent criteria which say that all pupils at all levels must make good or outstanding progress with their learning in each lesson.  No pressure then!  When I observe my colleagues teach I see them using some very highly developed ways of ensuring that these standards are met and I want to share one or two with you.

The first and most important for me is to develop not just a knowledge about your subject but about how your subject works, how different people learn in your subject and how you can use those differences in your teaching.  I am a strong believer in visual representation as a way of thinking, not just a way of recording what you have thought, so what am |I going to do for the student who really doesn’t like to function that way?  One example is to let them develop their design ideas by modelling, lots of simple paper and card models rather than page after page of neat sketches.  That really liberates some pupils.  What other ways can you find to allow difference in learning styles?  By the way a very popular statistic is that James Dyson went through five thousand card models to design his famous vacuum cleaner, I realise that this is going to cause a problem for some subjects but the point is not the modelling, it is the variety of approaches.

Another key issue is that I am very explicit about teaching my pupils two different things, one is how to pass the exam which will allow them access to further education and the other is how to be a designer.  You can substitute any human activity in place of designer.  The key message is that exams distort what they seek to examine because they prescribe a right way when often there is no single right way.  There has been some very liberating work in Maths teaching which points out the blindingly obvious, that there are several ways of working a problem, all of which might be right and give you the answer.  Of course the same is true about design and making in any field.  Of course there are constants which have been developed over many years which are not subject to change but there is a great deal more flexibility in almost all learning than we have traditionally admitted.

Last one, which I will need to come back to in another post.  The development of assessment for learning has shifted the goal posts in a most remarkable and wonderful way.  I will never forget watching a child who was on the special needs register have a dawning moment and suddenly rush to work  because she understood what she was supposed to be doing for the first time through a simple assessment for learning strategy.  That moment was not because I had taught well, it was because for the first time she had learned well.  Now there is a thought to end with.


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