Thursday, 28 May 2015

Pedagogical Aims for A-level

Totally stolen from Tom Sherington I have put together the list of things I am working on for A-level.

I do usually do something like this in my improvements note book for each class at the start of the year.

1. Building a bank of key words using quizlet 
In order to get to a grade E in physics students have to know all the basic definitions, there is no way around this. Last year I spent a long time laminating key word definition cards for my ELT students. This year I have done the same thing on quizlet, but really I want my students to do it for themselves. This will help me because I will be able to see their understanding in their definitions and help them practice phrasing their ideas succinctly. What I need to do is draw up the list of words I want my students to know to ensure they cover them all. 

2. More opportunities for longer answers
My students, and I can't imagine I am alone, don't feel confident approaching exam questions where there are a lot of blank lines to fill in. I need to make this part of their experience in class so they are not so nervous in approaching this type of question in an examination. What I really want for inspiration are paper 6 questions from the pre-2008 specification. But I am not sure where I can find them now. This is probably the most under developed idea for next year, at the moment I rely on past exam paper questions and development of this skill between Easter and May when they are working to complete papers, it needs to get embedded. 

3. Low stakes testing at regular intervals
I have tried to do this before with a groups of students I was trying to move from U to E and it wasn't successful as it didn't make a difference to their learning of the basic facts (they still did no work between lessons no matter how accessible I made it). However, I think that my current students would respond well to this. It will help to encourage them to learn the facts they need to be able to start to access the A-level materials and give them confidence that they are making progress. I want to test the uni structural/multi structural knowledge students need. I have made lists of closed questions for the materials topic and will do the same for waves topic during the course of this half term. Answering them will then form part of their prep. I have also created some socrative quizzes that should be 'easy' to check knowledge at certain points in the course, such as : SOC #: 16472046  It will mean I can track failing students and hopefully work with the pastoral teams to intervene early. 

4. More practice in maths basic skills, building to multi step questions
For the first time 2/3 of my physics class won't be doing A-level maths along side their physics A-level. I have discovered this year from one student that this can pose quite a confidence problem. I aim to make sure that I am explicitly considering the mathematics I am asking my students to do. Currently I am mapping the mathematics skills in the back of the specification to the units that I am teaching to ensure I teach them too. I find that students struggle with the prefixes to unit and standard form the most, and I know that I must teach calculator skills. I have bought some resources to help.

5. Hands on practical wherever possible to encourage problem solving
I know a lot of people don't like this idea, but I did read an article about how 'experts' learn by solving problems and 'novices' need to be told something. After reading this I taught an A-level physics lesson and it rang true. I want my students to ask questions and search for answers and doing practical work brings up those questions. I feel that if students ask the questions themselves they will engage more with the answer (particularly given it has a context) and will build a better understanding. They will need to think widely about a topic to answer exam questions and learning to question is part of this. I will have a group of up to a maximum of 6 students so I can manage discussions and ask questions to get students to the conclusions I want without talking at them for an hour. In the past I have not been as good as I could be at using practical work with A-level students and I want to change that. 

6. Opportunities to work with authentic data and draw conclusions
I don't know what the new exam questions will be like, but I know that they should include working scientifically. When we do the core practicals I want to ensure I am taking more care than I have previously on making the most of the practical activities to ensure students understand how to process data and evaluate it. 

7. Develop lab book skills
I want to create a course book and have the students use it to keep a record of their core practicals. I will be relying on Alex Weatherall to lead the way here! The shape of what I want to make is still in development and very much in note form in my note book. 

8. Increase context by reading around subjects
I want to copy the idea of Sarah Pannell and develop a journal club for the science post-16 students (and perhaps some Year 11s who are keen). I also have students who have ambition to apply to some very high caliber universities. I want to make sure I am helping them in their applications by giving them a helping hand in learning beyond the specification. More than that though, physics exam questions have contexts to them, and learning more about the context of physics should help to expand the vocabulary of EAL students and practice thinking about physics in different situations for the others. The Salters Horners course does help to do this, but I would like to go further. 

9. Using prep to instil good study skills from the start of the course
The amount of work you do for a single subject at A-level is a big increase (four times) than what you would do at GCSE. In some cases turning up to your GCSE lessons is sufficient to pass a GCSE. It isn't enough at A-level. I need to get my students into the habit of working 3-4 hours per week on their A-level physics work, but it isn't easy at the start. I still haven't got this right yet. Students struggle with the questions because the amount of knowledge we expect them to use to answer an A-level question is far beyond that at GCSE. For example, changing the unit they are using, understanding standard form, rearranging a formula, knowing what letters mean, remembering a formula, understanding the context of the question (is it under compression or tension) etc etc. I need to consider the develop of my students from the demands of GCSE to the expectations of an A-level student. 

10. Use video to help give clear explanations
I want to try and expand the number of videos I have made for the students. So far I have only made resources for GCSE, but I would like to support any A-level students who need to refresh their know of a skill or key idea by being able to watch a video of me. I find this an excellent way of explaining things clearly as I can have numerous goes until I am satisfied the explanation is clear and uses key language appropriately. Hopefully I can encourage the students to do this too using showme to explain how they are doing calculations so I can see their thought processes, which will be useful assessment. 

I will try to follow up with the sum of my preparations during July.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Considering the Practicalities

I have had aspirational blog posts come under my nose recently and they have made me think, not about what if... but how?

How do we really tackle issues in a school so that there is improvement?

I have been exposed to a lot of improvement ideas over the years I have been teaching, it doesn't feel like many of them have stuck. A few have come around again though. It is the 'innovative' ones that I dislike the most.

I will start with Ken Robinson and his message about creativity in schools (despite not really in a position to comment having only really watch one of his videos). About 5 years ago we had a federation in service day and one of the Head Teachers showed a video of Sir Ken talking about schools killing creativity. I remember thinking how I did agree that some students really didn't fit into the structure of normal schooling and it would be much better if we could inspire them/facilitate them into doing something else constructive with their time like ballet dancing. (Which I believe was his example). But in this video there were no practical ideas about what this would look like. I remember thinking "all well and good, but how" and then going on to think that perhaps the children of East Bristol needed more than just a place to learn how to dance and if they didn't engage in art or history lessons dance lessons would probably represent as large a challenge. To be fair to Sir Ken, my confusion at the lack of practicalities wasn't directed at him, but the academy leadership whom I felt had never got beyond Ken Robinson the great orator. I can't think of a single thing that changed as a result of seeing that video and that group of schools seems to have swung in a very different direction. Sir Ken talks about revolution not evolution in schools, yet fails to explain the practicalities of where the money would come from to fund such a change in the way students would be educated. (Forgetting whether or not you agree with him in principle).

Classrooms without walls. Has anyone, anywhere, actually worked out the practicalities of teaching in a classroom without walls? I have tried. I taught my previous school's competency curriculum in a large classroom without walls for a 100 minute lesson per week (The majority of the students' timetable was the competency curriculum). There were three of us teaching 90 students. At the start I moved tables, organised groupings, created resource packs and basically planned to an inch of my life for this lesson. At the end of the year the three groups were taught in different areas as if they were three separate classes. (Not my decision, but of the other people who taught those lessons as students spent most of their week on the competency curriculum). Practicality wasn't considered. In science we were given three classrooms with no walls between them. That lasted just over a year. The practicalities of the timetable killed that.

Practical advice seems to have been very thin when it comes to my career. Speaker talking in ideals and emotion. "Get the children thinking", "empathise with your colleague", "use creative approaches", "raise aspiration", "encourage GRIT", "have high expectations", "close the gap", or any of those sound bites. Even things like "use more literacy strategies" are not that helpful without practical ideas suited to the context. I have read many education books that really don't help me understand how I can improve in my classroom, they just give the big idea. I need the nitty gritty.

What I want to hear are changes and plans that are practical. I need to understand their benefit and outcome and I need to be able to fit them into what I already do or directly replace something. I want to know what it looks like in practice. I need the structures and routines that the changes will mean for both me and my students.

I want management teams I work with to consider the effect on staff when they introduce a new strategy to their school. It can be confusing and patronising to be told the bigger picture without the practicalities. "Have high expectations of your students" is one. Apparently, when I started teaching my low expectations was part of the reason why students were not getting C grades. I didn't expect them to misbehave, I expected them to love learning, it didn't help one little bit. In fact it made me feel worse to think if I believed something enough it would happen, so I obviously couldn't.

Growth mindset is a good example. If all that happens is a few motivational posters and being told about the background then there is little point. (In my opinion). If there advice encouraging a change from staff praising cleverness to praising effort then this is both practical and can be implemented successfully and with understanding. If we understand that as a staff we are looking for evidence that students are spending more time on their learning as a result then we can start to realise the benefits. Moreover it can then be treated as a long term change within the school, with continual reminding and refining. If you believe that it is the right thing now, then surely it will still be the right thing in ten years time, not something to change again next September?

Perhaps I am not really cut out for the management game, but I can't just make hypothetical changes. I can't just motivate, engage, or whatever. I can't embed within the next couple of weeks and I will never tick a box by putting up a poster or creating a space in a lesson plan pro forma. I feel there is no point making a fundamental change that relies on the timetable, or on the skills of one member of staff. (Doesn't mean it isn't worth doing). The problem the change addresses will just have to be tackled again later. Finally I really don't like a strategy that requires a fanfare. There are so many variables involved in education that I don't believe that many of the things we do will cause a great shift forward.

So lets consider the practicalities in what we do in education.
(Notice no practical advice on how to be practical - how frustrating and hypocritical).