Is authentic research, where young scientists have complete free rein, really possible at school?

Dr Clare Roper, Director of Science, Technology and Engineering at WHS, looks at how advances in information technology have removed the barriers that often limit the scope for school students to embark on their own innovative authentic scientific research.

I was sitting in a lecture at Oxford University about 18 months ago when it suddenly became clear to me that the factor most often restricting school students from undertaking their own authentic research had evaporated and was no longer an issue.

Classroom science experiments commonly involve replicating known scientific phenomena to backup discoveries that are well documented in the scientific literature. Unfortunately, quite often we cannot even so much as replicate the data from a science textbook in a school laboratory because the data collection is too complex. Instead, we might explore the scientific process taken by a research group as we unpack a beautiful classic experiment and marvel at their discovery and how it has shaped our understanding of scientific concepts . A personal favourite is the magically simple experiment of Meselson and Stahl which elucidated how exact copies of DNA are created each time a new cell is formed [1]. At the end of a lesson exploring their experiment, it is customary to have a look at photographs of the scientists and perhaps consider how they may have come up with their experimental design.

Meselson in lab
Above: Meselson in his lab, 1958

I often ponder whilst looking at a black and white photograph of a scientist with his unrecognisable equipment, how this person might be perceived by the students sitting in front of me in our shiny new STEAM tower. Is this what being a scientist entails? Even after removing the stereotype of the person themselves, there is the barrier of the often sophisticated machinery and the hours of patient work required to collect sufficient data to make meaningful conclusions. I have no doubt that although we can enjoy the simplicity of their experiments in class, it surely reinforces the notion that novel scientific research is something inaccessible and unattractive to many school students.

In sport, there are countless role models of young athletes competing on the world stage, with celebrated successes at their local schools. The same can be said of talented young actors, artists, musicians and even activists and politicians. But try to think of a brilliant young scientist who has gone on to become a world leader having had the opportunity to hone their skills and find their path whilst at school. The fantastic news that two leading female scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, have just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on genome editing [2] will certainly go a long way to inspiring more female scientists to dream big. However, like most leading scientists, their first taste of authentic research came after entering university and most are often only recognised much later in life.

The good news is that a growing number of passionate science teachers have teamed up with academics and a variety of institutions to provide opportunities for young scientists. Most research projects require access to expensive machinery or software that is beyond the reach of a school science department budget, and even those projects that are possible often tend to focus more on one or two aspects of the scientific process and cannot give the students carte blanche to explore their own curiosities because of time or cost constraints. Nevertheless at WHS we jumped on board and our students have benefitted hugely from projects including ORBYTS, and IRIS.

While I was in that lecture at Oxford that I suddenly realised that the missing ingredient that has recently evaporated was the need for the sophisticated machinery, and along with it, the prohibitive costs, and lengthy time required to collect data. The lecture was given by Prof Stephen Roberts, who specialises in machine learning and data analysis. Talking to him after his presentation about how ‘big data’ has shifted the emphasis in many university research labs from classic experimental design and data collection, towards a notion of data mining confirmed for me that the vast array of publicly available big datasets means that this modern approach to the scientific method makes novel research a feasible venture for all school students.

Scientific research using a data mining approach is exciting in that the data already exists, replacing the need for laborious experimental testing. The phenomenal progress in the field of artificial intelligence has meant that individual lab-bench experimental datasets are being replaced with enormous datasets which bring with them greater authenticity to the results, and also the ability to explore an expansive array of research questions that were never possible before. Data is amassing quicker than tertiary-level scientists can analyse it, and so the potential for school students to pose innovative research questions of these big datasets is not only boundless, but also a welcome and untapped asset in the quest to answer the world’s most pressing scientific questions.

Scientific method graph
Above: The Scientific Method

Novel research already on the go at WHS

We have already embarked on this exciting journey. Our first venture has been a collaboration with AELTC and IBM, who have kindly provided us with access to a huge dataset from the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Like all great research groups, and in true STEAM+ style, we bring together different skills. The creative powers of the unclouded vision of the young scientists, supported by our Director of Sport Ms Coutts-Wood’s expertise in sport science and my experience of data analysis, has meant than we are in the final stages of publishing our first scientific paper on the impact of serve speed on winning the point. How apt!

Two more groups started during lockdown. One group under the supervision of Ms McGovern (Head of Chemistry) in collaboration with the University of Bristol, has recently received a special award for their research on Air Pollution. The other group are drawing on the expertise at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Heidelberg, Germany and the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus outside Cambridge. Their research questions range from discovering the differences in proteins associated with immune function in red and grey squirrels, to determining which mammalian species do not have attachment sites for the coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) spike protein. These bioinformatics projects will be launched on the EBI website soon to allow other schools to join in as well. Watch this space!

Just as the new STEAM tower is about to open, so too are new exciting possibilities for our young imaginative scientists at WHS.

Racket Research Club
Above: Discussing exciting new findings in the STEAM tower

 


References

[1] https://magazine.caltech.edu/post/the-most-beautiful-experiment

[2] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2020/press-release/

What is Scholarship?

WimTalks

Mr Dan Addis, Head of Academic Scholarship at WHS, looks at our continuing Academic Scholarship programme and how you can get involved.

How often do you feel you really get to think? I mean, really think. To get your mind around a question, mull it over, think of a variety of angles, add variables, take away variables, introduce other protagonists who could affect the outcome, analyse experts’ views to see what suggestions they have, bring the idea down to the absolute minimum and build it back up.

In the day to day of modern existence, I would suggest this has been a rare occurrence until recently. I have no doubt you have seen umpteen articles on what being in lockdown has allowed people to do, but please forgive me one more example. With the time at my disposal, I decided to take on the burden of cooking ‘proper’ meals (as opposed to pasta and sauce) and the question that appeared to me was “What should I do with this cabbage?”. On the surface, I admit, this seems like a very banal question, not in keeping with the title of this post. However, I had the opportunity to run with it. I immediately ruled out just boiling it as a side, I wanted it as a key ingredient. I could not think of any recipes particularly that had cabbage as a key element, so I had to change my angle. Kimchee perhaps, exciting but not in the flavour spectrum I was looking for. I could add spices, herbs, perhaps a meat option. I ended up with a full roast meal in my head, but that seemed to complex, so I pared it back down. I asked my fiancée what she thought, what flavours she was hankering for. She suggested something hearty with gravy. Excellent call, but just cabbage and gravy? Not enough! I went to the internet, did some research on dishes involving cabbage. I mused on the topic for at least an hour. In the end, I made an Irish colcannon with an onion gravy, garnished with spring onions. It was exactly what I wanted.

I hope there are not too many of you who are looking at this and are exasperated. I was promised Scholarship and I have been given the culinary ravings of some idiot! But consider a different question I grappled with over lockdown. Do I have a philosophy of life? I started by thinking about what is important to me, considering the different aspects of my life that bring me joy or cause me distress. I asked my fiancée about her thoughts regarding what I find important and took on her feedback. I found a Blinkist (link below) page on personal philosophies and learnt the difference between Epicureanism, Daoism, contemporary Islam and more. I thought about it carefully for at least an hour. In the end I decided I am a modern Stoic. It fit my personality and priorities.

If I review the two questions I above, there is only one which many would consider to be worthy of scholarship. But if we look at the processes I went through in each instance, are they particularly different? Were there different skills evident in each instance? I would argue not and believe that the future of Scholarship lies in the broadening of our concept of what Scholarship is away from the traditional models and into more complex and interesting territory.

Above: WimTalks Session

There are two messages I would like to argue for in this blogpost:

  1. Anything can be Scholarship; and I mean anything;
  2. The interesting part of Scholarship is the similarities and connections between the lines of conventional subject knowledge.

To my first point, I would like to turn to Mary Beard. In the introduction to her book “Confronting the Classics” makes the case for the study of Classics not just for the benefit of the individual, but so we are certain that ‘someone’ is studying it. It does not really matter who that someone is, but it is vital that there are experts in the field to ensure knowledge is not lost and context is understood. Without these experts understanding the depth and complexity of a topic, we are bound to fall into clichés and incorrect retrieval of history used to divide us or perpetuate a damaging status quo (gestures at everything).

In the recent Black Lives Matter protests and movements, one of the appeals made towards white allies to the cause was that we educate ourselves. A huge amount of phenomenal material has been designated unworthy of scholarship because it does not fall into the prescribed canon. There have been innumerable posts across social media asking why people have not learnt about Black Wall Street, the true history of colonisation, that Alexandre Dumas was black, and many further examples. I would argue much of this is to do with what we consider worthy of learning.

When establishing the new National Curriculum, the government said they were firmly indebted to the work of E.D. Hirsch, who advocates for a Scholar Academic model in which there is a corpus of information that it is vital to know in order to succeed in our society and have a beneficial education. In this corpus, there are the usual suspects; Troy, British Empire, Holocaust, American Civil War etc. However, there is a distinct lack of inclusion about African history and culture, understanding of Chinese philosophy, Aboriginal oppression across the globe, and other key ideas and stories that are important if we want to build a more united world away from the bastion of the old white men’s club. The National Curriculum is doing a disservice to our children, and I believe the starting point of a shift away from this damaging perspective comes from an acknowledgement that anything can be scholarly. Everything is worthy of study so long as the person is interested and willing to look at the topic in an academic fashion from multiple angles. If we move to this understanding of scholarship, as opposed to a traditional model of what can be deemed scholarly, then we will create opportunities for our students to extend their learning beyond what is expected and have a generation of students who do not put a ranking on knowledge; who do not assume that certain facts, figures and stories have greater worth than others; and who can go into the world open minded and willing to explore without the weight of historical prejudice hanging onto them.

My second point connects prominently to our STEAM+ ideology, now towering in a beautiful physical manifestation at the centre of our school. Within the hierarchy of knowledge, which I discussed earlier, is a rather Victorian perspective on education; that knowledge can be chopped up and distributed to the students in easily differentiated chunks. However, this means that links are missed, the core elements that combine the different subjects are thrust apart. By encouraging the students to focus on whatever they find interesting, whether it is in official curricula or not, we can encourage students to attack a problem from multiple angles, playing with the blurred lines between the subjects, and discovering links that were hidden to them before. Quite apart from the fact that this lateral thinking is a skill that will benefit them in whatever avenue they wish to pursue in later life, it is also fun and rewarding. One of my greatest delights as a teacher is seeing a student’s awe-filled expression when they discover a link between subjects. (My favourite is explaining the connection between the Latin ambulare – to walk, and the modern day ambulance and how it comes from the fact that wounded soldiers on historical battlefields used to be carried away by people walking with a stretcher).

Scholarship should be fun and exciting, and the links students discover are what make it so. It becomes complex, rich and akin to discovery, when traditional learning can be staid, bland and akin to commuting. We need to encourage our students to find the fun of scholarship as that is the greatest gift we can give them.

I shall finish this blog by outlining how we plan to do this in our Academic scholarship programme, which is open to all students who wish to engage with it. Our intention is to encourage individuality. Scholars will be having 1 on 1 meetings with myself each half term to talk with them about their own areas of interest, from football to Hamlet. Whatever takes their fancy, we encourage them to do their own research, explore the topic in detail from a variety of perspectives, and then create something. Over lockdown, several of our KS3 students created short videos on areas of interest, from prized pets to quantum computing (which you can find here), as an example.

The idea is to allow them freedom in their study, away from the traditional academic models. To give them inspiration we also have a variety of different academic opportunities they can engage with. We have the Rosewell lecture programme, which will be done virtually, with speakers due to be announced soon. We will have the Explore programme, where our teachers will delve into topics that are interesting and engaging beyond the set curriculum. Tea and T’inking, a club where students can discuss and analyse topics as random as synaesthesia to meme culture, will be a safe environment where no question is unacceptable and help students stretch themselves intellectually. We also will have the Masterclasses, as mentioned in the co-curricular programme. And more than any of this, I would be delighted to hear from any student who has an area of interest and would like to pursue it. Whether it is writing an article for WimLearn, submitting an essay for a competition, or just discovering something new and wanting to discuss it. Scholarship is for everyone and should be free and open to run in any direction. We are here to help students follow that interest and passion; who knows where it may end up!

I would like to finish this article by returning to my cabbage. I will admit that I did use a particularly ridiculous example to make my point (a classic reductio ad absurdum!). However, did you know that cabbage has been cultivated for over 6000 years, almost longer than any other vegetable? That eating cabbage helps keratin production which leads to healthier hair, skin and nails? That raw cabbage juice is used as headache relief? That cabbage used to be an elixir for baldness? See, even the humble cabbage can be interesting and scholarly!


References:

https://www.blinkist.com/ – website/app that condenses non-fiction books into easily readable chunks or 15-minute podcasts.

Beard, M. (2014) Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations, Profile Books Ltd

Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know, Random House USA

McInerney, L. (2012)  Things to know about ED Hirsch and the ‘Common Cultural Literacy’ idea, https://cfey.org/2012/10/things-to-know-about-ed-hirsch-and-the-common-cultural-literacy-idea/

Pigliucci, M., Cleary, S., Kaufman, D., (2020) How to live a good life: A guide to choosing your personal philosophy; Penguin-Random house.

Prized Pets

Agnes in Year 7 presents a history of prized pets, from the Egyptians to Salvador Dali.

Watch below:

Is money the root of all evil?

Imogen (Year 9)  looks at the connection between money, power and the monarchy in this short presentation arguing as to whether we can see money as the root of all evil.

Watch below:

Taxi drivers, not bus drivers

Suzy Pett, Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, looks at individual learning and discusses some of the benefits of this approach to teachers and learners.

As a school, our first strategic objective is for pupils to ‘step in’ and ‘be known’. As such, individualised learning goes to the heart of what we do. I’ve heard teachers described as bus drivers rather than taxi drivers, but I don’t think that reflects our ethos at WHS. We know that every pupil will get to the destination – we have the same high expectations of all our pupils – but we know that the route and journey will be different for each pupil. At WHS, we do not offer a mass transport education system, but we think of our pupils as individuals.

WHS RS Class
Above: WHS RS Class in action

Last year, John Hattie, author of the game-changing book ‘Visible Learning’, added some new categories to his meta-analysis of factors relating to student achievement. Coming in third out of 252 influences is ‘Teacher estimates of achievement’ with a value of 1.29.[1] To put this in context, the average effect size of all the interventions studied is 0.4. So, clearly, this is a big deal. This rating reflects the accuracy of an individual teacher’s knowledge of pupils and how that knowledge determines the kinds of classroom activities and materials as and difficulty of the tasks assigned. So, knowing your pupils is vital. It makes sense.

However, the idea of differentiation is fraught. Rather than being the elixir of learning, differentiation conjures an array of fears. Quite rightly, the negative potential of differentiation comes under fire. In our context of motivated and ambitious pupils, I cringe at lesson plans which explicitly seek to limit outcomes through so-called differentiation. The once popular tripartite formula of lesson plans – ‘all will’, ‘most will’, ‘some will’ – seemed a quick way to show your awareness of the different abilities in your class. Really, what it did was reveal a lack of confidence in all pupils achieving mastery, and your skills as a teacher to facilitate that. It resulted in a lower expectation of what “less able” pupils could achieve.

Above: WHS Classics class in action

A second concern about differentiation is that it can oversimplify learning. With the benign intention of making learning accessible for some pupils, excessively scaffolded tasks in fact remove the challenge and the opportunity to find things hard. A frequent mantra we hear in the teaching community is: “A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult”. Deep learning comes with struggle, something that educationalist Lev Vygosky also suggests: our pupils should operate within their ‘Zones of Proximal Development’. This involves facing challenges just beyond their current capabilities, with the right level of scaffolding to point the way.[2] Although disproportionate struggle has a detrimental effect, the danger with differentiation is that, keen to support those who will find it hardest, we remove the struggle altogether. The completion of the ‘dumbed down’ task at a lower level is the learner’s modest prize.[3]

A third concern is around teacher workload. The teacher is frazzled with creating multiple routes through the lesson, concocting various worksheets for the same task and putting on ‘clinics’ outside of lessons to cater for all needs. There is no time to reflect on what is working in the classroom, accurately assessing pupils and responding by planning creative and engaging lessons. Pupils are equally frazzled, spending lunchtimes yo-yoing between ‘clinics’.

So what does excellent individualised learning look like in a class setting? For me, assessment is the compass for differentiation. To really know our pupils, we need a sharp sense of what they struggled with and where they misunderstood ideas. It’s not got enough to find this out in a ‘clinic’ and to put it right then. Assessment and the resulting differentiation needs to happen in class. So rigorous Q&A is vital, as is effective and regular low-stakes testing. During class discussion, we need to focus as much on error as on what pupils got right so we know where the gaps are. We need to find out where the sticking point is for some members of the class, and then put in place plans to address it within lesson time.  Knowing your pupils is vital and responding to that knowledge in small, sometimes incremental ways, is what differentiation is all about. Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, summarises this brilliantly in a blog post: “You may feel that John is coasting a bit; he needs a push this lesson.  It may be that Albert has looked a bit bored of late. He might be finding things a bit easy; let’s really crank it up this lesson.  The last time Rory handed his book in it was a bit of a shocker; I need to sit with him this lesson and get a few things sorted out.  Daniel is always just below the top level. Why is that? Maybe he needs to do some re-drafting and I need to absolutely insist that he does it again and again until it’s hitting the top level.”[4] It’s not all about the separate worksheet, or the extra clinic. It’s about the sustained and regular interactions we have with pupils on a daily basis. That’s individualised learning.

Bibliography

https://learningspy.co.uk/research/teachers-think-differentiation/

https://www.cem.org/blog/is-it-time-to-ditch-differentiation/

https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/01/07/differentiation-doesnt-work.html

https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/oct/01/mastery-differentiation-new-classroom-buzzword

https://teacherhead.com/2019/01/24/rescuing-differentiation-from-the-checklist-of-bad-practice/

https://teacherhead.com/2014/02/01/dealing-with-day-to-day-differentiation/

[1] https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

[2] https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/oct/01/mastery-differentiation-new-classroom-buzzword

[4] https://teacherhead.com/2014/02/01/dealing-with-day-to-day-differentiation/>

Is empathy the most important thing we can teach our students?

Mr Daniel Addis, Head of Academic Scholarship and Teacher of Classics at WHS, looks at the purpose of education, and asks whether empathy could be the key skill students should develop in an academic environment.
Whenever one considers what education is for, there are several arguments that immediately sprout up. There is a ‘Scholar Academic’ (SA)[1] perspective that suggests there is a key set of knowledge that students need to know in order to be upstanding members of society. The ‘Social Efficiency’ (SE) model argues that it is skills that are imperative to learning in order to prepare students for life in the workplace, whereas the ‘Learner Centred’ (LC) model suggests that content is immaterial; students should have the opportunity to study whatever they desire to benefit themselves. Finally the ‘Social Reconstruction’ (SR) model suggests that education’s main imperative is to facilitate the creation of a more just society, based on the balance between different groups, whether that is racial, class-based, or other forms of segregation.

The true answer presumably lies in a combination of these different models, but I would argue that empathy is the link upon which all of them rely. Empathy is the key knowledge, the important skill, the centre for the learner, and the methodology through which we can create a more-just society.

Nussbaum, in her excellent work Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities[2], discusses how empathy requires three things.

  1. A child who knows how to do things for themselves
  2. Recognition that total control is neither possible nor good, that the world is a place in which we all have weaknesses and we need to find ways to support one another
  3. An awareness of solidarity and the idea that we are not alone

Each of the 4 models of curriculum I mentioned have part of these three aspects in them. In the SA it is a solidarity gained by the shared experience of learning the same key material along with understanding of the past that demonstrates the lack of total control in the world; in the SE it is developing children’s ability to do things for themselves; in the LC it is also the development of the students’ ability to do things, along with supporting them individually; and in the SR it is the concept of solidarity amongst peers, and support of others. The fact that part of if not all of these key facets of developing empathy are in each curriculum model demonstrates how important it is to students’ education.

Though all the models have different aims, aspirations, history, ideology, and conceptual understanding, Empathy runs through them all. This is eminently understandable. In E.D Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know[3], he lists facts, figures and great works of literature that he considers a key part of any western education. The list has a strong historical bias, requiring students to learn the history of culture and society. This develops a cultural empathy, understanding of where we have come from, as well as helping us understand and relate to other cultures our students might come across in future.

Photo by Tatiana Vavrikova from Pexels

According to Nussbaum “seeing how another group of intelligent human beings has cut up the world differently… gives a young person an essential lesson in cultural humility.”[4]  Coming across something different which requires greater study and further analysis helps students to understand their experiences as it is comparatively more different to their own. The fact the traditions and models are more unfamiliar allows students to develop analytical tools they can use in other spheres. Their analytical ability is honed further as it is used by the student dissecting more peculiar practices. When considering the greater intellectual difference, the similarities become more poignant, and the nature of combined human experience can imbue students with an awareness of solidarity between peoples, something required for empathy.[5]

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

From a pastoral perspective, empathy is something that is an obvious focus to develop in young people, but a blending of the academic and pastoral is important in this setting. It is only by intellectually engaging with alternative information and different perspectives through academic learning that empathy is fully developed. It is enhanced through questioning, analytical rigour and searching for deeper meaning rather than, as can be the case in PSHE, something that is assumed. We all consider ourselves to be empathetic but by questioning information from other sources comes a stronger empathy, not a facile, ethereal thing, which can lead to more substantial change.

If we look more closely at some of the material covered in class, we can question the inherent benefit. What is the purpose of learning about life in Chaucer’s England? Would it make much difference in someone’s life to know about life in a Roman household? Perhaps the facts themselves are not important. But by comparing their own experience with others, students can gain a more concrete understanding of the beneficial aspects of their own life. This, in turn, can help them understand other cultures around the world, other people, new information which will prove a vital skill for their later life. With the rate the world is changing, being able to intellectually adapt and understand the needs of others is one of the core skills our students need to possess.

Whilst I do believe that some knowledge is inherently beneficial (I would hardly be a Classicist if I didn’t!), it is important to remember the overall purpose of what we do at school. By putting empathy at the front and centre of the learning experience, we not only develop analytical ability, but we also develop better people who can utilise a different perspective, challenge assumptions and develop their understanding of others. In this way, we give them the tools to change the world, building on our shared past, in order to develop our best future.


References

[1] The four terms I use for curriculum ideologies are found in Schiro, M. S. (2013) Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns 2.e.; Sage Publishers. p. 4. There are other terms used by other authors but these four are the clearest.

[2] Nussbaum (2010) Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 97

[3] Hirsch, E.D. (1988) Cultural Literacy: what every American needs to know; Incidentally this was the key text upon which the 2015 UK governmental education policy was based.

[4] Nussbaum (2010), 90

[5] Ibid, 97

Is this the end for experts?

Wimbledon Wonderers logo

Ms Mari Nicholas, Head of Academic Scholarship at WHS, looks at how WHS is scholarly and why we should be lifelong learners.

Judith Butler, Science Philosopher
Judith Butler, Science Philosopher

From Thales of Miletus, Zarathustra and Confucius to Nancy Cartwright, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Judith Butler, over the centuries, philosophers have debated and cogitated the big questions. According to the University of Oxford, the study of Philosophy develops analytical rigour and the ability to criticise and reason logically. These skills can be applied to questions ranging from how we acquire knowledge and form moral judgements to central questions in the philosophy of religion. (Ox.ac.uk, 2019)

An expert is a person who is knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area. Being scholarly means having or showing knowledge, learning, or devotion to academic pursuits. One could argue, therefore, that one does not need to be a philosopher in order to be an expert or indeed scholarly. We can all develop knowledge, become skilful and devote ourselves to academic pursuits without having to give up the day job!

Work hard, pass exams and get a job?

There are myriad benefits of lifelong learning, not least the joy of discovering something new. Every day is a school day, perhaps more for teachers than most, as rarely a day goes by when one does not learn something new from the girls we are fortunate enough to educate.

Major advantages of continued learning include improving our mental and physical health: it fosters a sense of identity, an ability to cope and a sense of purpose. Studies have shown that learning leads to a greater sense of wellbeing and continued education in life contributes to a ‘cognitive footprint’, which may delay the onset of dementia. Physical health is also improved and longitudinal studies have shown a lower risk of coronary heart disease, higher probability of cervical screening and improved nutrition. In fact, learning as a whole has an impact on mortality, although one can attribute this evidence to both early as well as adult education.

Adult learning has a positive effect on your employability, raising aspirations, increasing earnings and improving job satisfaction.  Adult learning fosters a capacity to be assertive and to collaborate with others in the workplace (Billett, 2014). It is beneficial for your employer too, increasing productivity, employee commitment and resulting in a slower turnover of staff.

Community learning and vocational training are associated with improved community engagement, local involvement and volunteering (Bosche and Brady, 2013; Feinstein et al., 2008). In particular, adult literacy and numeracy have a positive impact on communities, leading to greater tolerance of others and increased trust in people of different nationalities and religions. Finally, adults who participate in learning themselves are more likely to engage in their children’s education, improving outcomes. Where levels of inequality are high, this effect is particularly pronounced (OECD, 2016).

What does Scholarship look like at WHS?

Wimbledon Wonderers logo Alongside high-quality provision in lessons, the academic stretch programme challenges our learners throughout the school.

Girls in Years 7 and 8 attend Wonderers sessions where departments take their education beyond the curriculum and enjoy learning for its own sake. This academic year, a diverse range of subjects has been covered, from Classics “The link between myth, poetry and art”; Product Design “Principles behind designing and the utility of products” and Maths “The Maths behind knitting”.

Tea and T’inking is an informal discussion group where older students come together to hash out the big ideas. Topics covered so far this year include: politics “what we might consider as an ideal political system and the deficiencies in our system”; general knowledge “what do we mean by general knowledge, how is it useful and how might it be applied?”; modern linguistic and visual culture “Why are young people attracted to memes, what do they mean and what is their importance?”.

Rosewell Lecture logoOur robust Explore and Rosewell lecture series welcomes external speakers to challenge and provoke those girls in Years 9 to 13 to think more deeply both within and without their subject specialism. Parents, teachers and partner schools are welcome at these lectures. Our external speakers have included: Janet Henry, Chief Global Economist for HSBC, “Diverging fortunes”; “In conversation with” Gillian Clark, poet, playwright, Explore logoeditor, broadcaster; Prof Vicky Neale, Whitehead lecturer at the Mathematical Institute, “Closing the Gap, the quest to understand prime numbers”; Dr Guy Sutton, “Mind and brain in the 21st Century”.

An integral part of being a member of staff at WHS is continual study and the development of expertise in their field. Regular training from Trust or external providers to in-house Twilight sessions cover a range of topics from “How to become a Head of Department” to “Giving feedback on exams, tests and assessments” and allow staff to develop professionally, leading to benefits for themselves, the students and the school.

Brain books

In addition, a group of staff from across the school make up a professional reading group, Brain Books. Every half term they discuss books in education that relate to their role within the school. These discussions inform their teaching, feed into departmental discussions and might eventually change the way we teach and learn at WHS. “Teaching Backwards” by Andy Griffith will be the next book to challenge preconceived notions of how excellent teaching and learning should look.

Lazy Teachers Handbook A discussion of “The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook” by Jim Smith drew the following comments:

  • His ideas cover a variety of pedagogical areas i.e. differentiation, lesson structure, plenaries, assessment, planning and pupil self-esteem.
  • It is good to dip into and provides inspiration for different ways of doing something.
  • One suggestion that I used today with some success is the think-pair-square-share idea for sharing ideas within the class. It doesn’t involve any pre-planning or moving of furniture and develops a range of skills for pupils.
  • I read the book in its entirety and was entertained; I picked up lots of useful strategies. It lacked a rigorous evidence base and that was a sticking point for me as his own particular style dominated. Having said that, in the past couple of weeks I have utilised a number of things and have made note of more. I use continuums or opinion lines in lessons at all levels to help students develop arguments and have experimented with his suggestions of mixing up different points of view in different ways to get individuals differentiating their interpretations in a more nuanced way.

 

Independent Thinking“Independent Thinking” by Ian Gilbert elicited the following:

  • Great for dipping into: the very structure of this book is creative and anti-linear, juxtaposing the author’s observations, ‘thunks’, witticisms, poems, stories, mini-essays, all to spark the reader’s own ‘out of the box’ thought processes.
  • His short observations or perceived wisdoms could work really well to spark interdisciplinary debate and to develop flexible growth mind-sets although ‘profound’ wisdoms slip into cliché and become a bit grating.
  • The book was unscientific, presenting anecdotal evidence as fact; not only that, but at times it seemed to be anti-science, evidenced in the chapter ‘How to know whether you’re a humanist or a scientist’ which lists a series of damning indictments on scientists.
  • The emphasis on building a child’s positive self-image was great – nurturing a feeling of ‘can do’, even if not ‘yet’.
  • It is not immediately relevant to my classroom teaching, but pastorally and more widely the ideas he had about creating opportunities to engage intellectually with the work of charities as well as support them with action were valuable.
  • “30 things exams don’t test” works very well with my ‘being human in an AI age’ agenda. It had a “Good school checklist” – are we walking the walk with our vision and values? Perhaps leave the poetry to other people?
  • It has made me reflect on my teaching and question, ‘How am I preparing today’s children for life in tomorrow’s world?’ Are my actions helping the girls in my class or school to in the future, have a positive effect on the world?
  • I would like to think that a copy of this book was given to all those who work at the Department of Education!

In summary, is it the end for experts? No. Lifelong learning has a huge impact on our health, wealth and happiness. I believe we should be scholarly and become experts despite what others may think.

Bibliography

Billett, S., 2014. Learning in the circumstances of practice. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(5), pp. 674-693.

Bosche, B. and Brady, B., 2013. Benefits des community learning: Ergebnisse aus Irland, in Benefits of lifelong learning. DIE Journal for Adult Education, 1, pp. 30-34.

Feinstein, L., Budge, D., Vorhaus, J. and Duckworth, K., 2008. The social and personal benefits of learning: A summary of key research findings, London: Institute of Education, University of London.

OECD, 2016. The productivity-inclusiveness nexus. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/globalforum-productivity/library/The-Productivity-Inclusiveness-Nexus-Preliminary.pdf

Ox.ac.uk. (2019). Philosophy and Theology | University of Oxford. [online] Available at: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/philosophy-and-theology?wssl=1  [Accessed 13 Mar. 2019].

 

 

 

Does taking part in co-curricular activities really improve academic outcomes?

Jenny Cox, Director of Co-curricular and Partnerships at Wimbledon High, looks at the links between co-curricular activities and the impact these can have on academic outcomes in the classroom.

There has been much research over the years investigating the link between Sport and its benefits – not only to a healthy lifestyle – but to the academic progress of students in schools and universities.  Research has shown that regular physical activity leads to improvements in a range of cognitive functions, including information processing, attention and executive function (Chaddock et al. 2011). However, does involvement in any co-curricular club facilitate academic outcomes?

‘Flow’

Can you think of a time when you have ever been so absorbed in an activity that you have completely lost track of time? That whatever you were doing was challenging, totally captivating, was extending your skills and you were virtually operating in the subconscious? If you can, it’s likely that you were experiencing a phenomenon known as ‘flow’. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi writing in the 1960s researched this initially with it really coming to the forefront of sports psychology in the 1990s.

He described it as:

“A deeply rewarding and optimal experience characterised

by intense focus on a specific activity

to the point of becoming totally absorbed in it”

Csikszentmihalyi suggested that experiencing ‘flow’ makes us happier and more successful, which in turn leads to increased performance. To get to this point, he pointed out that tasks have to be constantly challenging which in turn results in personal growth and development. This doesn’t mean that we always have to be in a state of optimal performance, but more that we are fully immersed in the process of the task in hand, as shown in the diagram below:

Activities & Flow diagram by Csikszentmihalyi

‘Flow’ experiences can happen as part of everyday life, and Csikszentmihalyi suggested overlearning a concept or a skill can help people experience flow. Within a sporting context, it is sometimes referred to a “being in the zone”, experiencing a loss of self-consciousness and feeling a sense of complete mastery.

Motivation

In addition to overlearning, another key component of finding ‘flow’ is doing activities that we are intrinsically motivated to take part in. This means work and activities that we feel real meaning behind and enjoy doing for the sake of doing. Financial gain, awards and praise can be by-products of the ‘flow’ activities you do, but they cannot be the core motivation behind what you’re doing. Csikszentmihalyi even goes further, saying the feeling should be “such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.”

Academic success

So why is this relevant to our school co-curricular programme and can it be linked to academic success?  The links here are two-fold.

Firstly, the co-curricular programme is designed to inspire and enhance the general learning of new skills and concepts. It gives us more time to focus on over-learning a skill or concept because there is no pressure of being examined, therefore no exact specification or course content to get through. We have the luxury of taking our time, over-rehearsing, over practising to a point of taking part in an activity with a loss of sub-consciousness. We may repeat skills so frequently because we revisit them two, three, four, seven, eight times a week, (think of rowing, drama, and music to name just three activities that have repeat weekly sessions), that the feeling of knowing a skill, a sequence, a technique really well and performing is sub-consciously really does happen.

Secondly, with this feeling of ‘flow’ comes those ‘magic moments’ we can all benefit from at any point during the day. The mere fact we are immersed in activity we enjoy could result in us being ‘in the zone’. We are busy immersed in something which is likely to mean we are automatically not thinking about an essay, a grade, a piece of coursework, a friendship or relationship issue at that time and so as a consequence that time contributes enormously to our state of well-being and happiness. This, in turn, is highly likely to lead to a more productive ‘head space’ for work when we return to it, less procrastinating, greater focus and possibly better outcomes.

So can we draw a link between participation in co-curricular activities and academic outcomes? There is research to indicate we can….. happy reading!

References

  • Chaddock, L., C. H. Hillman, S. M. Buck, and N. J. Cohen. 2011. “Aerobic Fitness and Executive Control of Relational Memory in Preadolescent Children.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 43 (2): 344–349.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row
  • Bailey R. (2016): Sport, physical activity and educational achievement – towards an explanatory model, Sport in Society

 

 

Bursting the Bollinger Bolshevik Bubble – 21/09/18

Mr Dan Addis, one of our Joint Heads of Academic Scholarship, discusses the benefits of considering the opinions of others, as offered through our weekly Tea and T’inking club here at WHS.

It is very reassuring to read an article, listen to a podcast, or read a blog that asserts your own opinion at you. “Thank goodness! I was right all along!”

That’s the important thing isn’t it? Being right. Now, you have evidence backing your own view. You are not the only person who thinks this way. Other people important enough to be published in some medium think this way. Therefore, they must be right and you must be right. Moreover, all you see is the same information reiterated in your News feed, Instagram account, or amongst your friends. This corroborates your view. The opinion you had which was a small delicate thing is growing and hardening, becoming a wall to keep your psyche safe from thoughts that it assumes might damage it. Your confidence grows. Your surety of opinion flourishes.

In a world where fragile mental health is much more prevalent (or at least people are becoming more aware of it), this confidence in one’s opinion can be a positive thing. The community feel of shared opinion is also very intoxicating. Not only do we feel that we are right and are comforted by the presence of others with the same opinion, we also have a sense of community in a world so open it can be intimidating. The comments section of a blog post or a reddit chain can become a supportive group of like-minded friends. Positive isn’t it?

Well, I would argue no.

I’d like to refer back to the wall analogy I used earlier. Walls are fantastic for protection from outside forces that might harm us. They make us feel safe and secure. If you speak to a person without any walls to protect them, then you might recognise how valuable walls can be. But speak to a person who only has walls and no way of escaping them. Then walls become an enemy, a blight, the cause of pain, suffering and depression. The same can happen in our mind. By constantly reiterating a certain set of values and opinions, we can feel comfortable, but we can also become shut in, closeted away from information and facts that might help us grow and progress. The outside of the mental walls becomes the enemy, the dangerous, the damaging.

We approach these outside opinions in several ways. Mostly we ignore them, maligning them as idiotic or even pitying those who hold these views that cannot possibly be right. Sometimes we attack them, aggressively shouting down those who hold these views either for their stupidity or for their ignorance. We are building these walls higher and higher to differentiate ourselves from those outside.

However, there is another option: opening the metaphorical door.

Include other thoughts and ideas into discussion. Acknowledge other people’s views with openness and desire to learn. No one view is 100% correct. There are many shades of grey in most issues and having an awareness of them not only increases your knowledge, it helps you have discussions with others with opposing views.

Understandably, there are some issues with this approach. If you try to engage with someone who holds an opposing view but is not willing to compromise or discuss evenly, then it can be trying. It is tiresome to review points over and over and not reach a conclusion. In addition, it can be difficult to break this self-perpetuating cycle of distrust between opposing views.

Furthermore, the main issue is usually to do with ignorance not idiocy. The only cure for ignorance is learning, but the negativity that people of certain opinions have towards those who do not automatically agree can be suffocating. It is understandable that one might want to stay in their protective walled opinion fortress. What is needed is a safe space where you can learn information contrary to your held beliefs. A space where any question is acceptable. A space where you can discuss issues from a variety of viewpoints in a positive and constructive way.

Tea and T’inking can be this space for you. Come along challenge your preconceptions. At Wimbledon, our metaphorical walls are the socialist liberal middle class sphere that the vast majority of us inhabit. Burst that Bollinger Bolshevik Bubble, not in an aggressive manner but calmly, with a cup of tea.

Tea and T’inking is a weekly club held at WHS for girls in Year 9-13 who are invited to come along, have a cup of tea, and discuss a variety of topics, opening minds and creating debate. Please see Mr Addis if you’d like to pop along to the next session.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Daniel Addis, Teacher of Classics here at WHS, offers an insight into the need for breadth in students and teachers’ education and how they can acquire it.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If we consider the Dunning-Kruger effect (demonstrated on the diagram to the right) we might agree. The principle is that ‘knowledge without sufficient experience can lead to an overestimation of ability’. It is no surprise that Donald Trump has been nicknamed the ‘Dunning-Kruger President’ in articles by the New York Times, Bloomberg, and the Independent. I recall an interview where he tries to explain uranium to his audience:

“You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons like lots of things are done with uranium including some bad things.”

The ignorance is palpable. One cannot help but feel that he has learnt a lot of this information in the very recent past. He has absorbed so little of it that he has become overly confident with his knowledge of the subject. I hope I am not alone in feeling thoroughly worried by this man and his proximity to the proverbial big red button. A little knowledge is truly a dangerous thing.

In the face of this, we should surely adopt a Socratic approach; “the only thing I know is that I know nothing.” By acknowledging our own ignorance, we do not risk the negatives of living beyond our intellectual means; the embarrassing demonstration of knowledge half-baked, the pub quiz question we definitely know the answer to being wrong, or a lack of understanding in the political climate leading to nuclear war. ‘Ignorance is bliss’, or is it?

As teachers, we have progressed to the far end of the Dunning-Kruger graph. We have the experience to move beyond the initial confidence level, through the trough of timidity to the position of expert in our subject. We are authorities on the syllabus and all is known to us. Hurrah!

But is there a danger that we could be elsewhere in the Dunning-Kruger graph? If we consider the graph to concern the sum of human knowledge rather than just the knowledge of our own subject, surely the specialisation in our own area of expertise, to the detriment of other knowledge, means that the level of overall experience is low. We do not have the breadth of knowledge required to move beyond the initial peak of overconfidence. And we have seen the danger of that…

It is important in our role as teachers that we continue to broaden our horizons, to learn more about the wider world beyond our subject and our specialty. By advocating our individual areas, we can damage the overall learning of the student. Naturally, we want to promote our subject, the bastion of our intellectual development. There is a reason we have attached ourselves to these monikers of learning, such as an inspiring teacher or a book that had us gripped from cover to cover. Particularly for the 6th Form or for options lower down the school, we want to sell our subject, to show students how our subject can pique their interest. We have to be incredibly passionate, otherwise our subject may be disregarded and all that knowledge remains unutilised and undiscovered.

We are particularly fervent in the Classics department for this very reason. I can guarantee every Classics teacher has memorised the ‘why learning Classics is still relevant and important’ speech due to how often we have to spout it. This breeds an element of competition in teachers, who feel they must defend their subject against the onslaught of other options. We are in a fight to keep our relevance and our numbers high. This has engendered an ‘Ivory Towers’ model of teaching, where each subject is in opposition to the others rather than collaborating to gain the best results for students.

Whilst the British system of subjects is fantastic for producing a depth of knowledge in those students who study them, we as teachers need to be advocating a far broader array of knowledge. What is an education that only focuses on one area? How can we truly learn Shakespeare without understanding Greek Theatre? How can we truly learn physical Geography without an understanding of the scientific elements that fabricate our world? How can we truly learn French without knowledge of the history of the Europe?

It is our responsibility as teachers to keep learning, expanding our horizons, and putting our subject in context with others. The ‘Ivory Towers’ model is not only defunct, it is damaging and we must try to move beyond it. Students will be learning the same skills in a variety of classes. Understanding of major concepts such as justice and morality can happen in History just as much as R.S. Analysis of literature is not just the preserve of English, but of MFL and Classics as well. Logical processing and methodology occurs in Maths, Sciences, Geography, Languages, History, and more. The similarities are much more prominent than the differences.

I will stop at suggesting a thorough re-examination of our entire curriculum. I think our subject-based system allows students to study what they are interested in with a depth and insight that other models of teaching do not allow them. However, they need to be exposed to a wider array of material in order to develop the cultural capital needed to be high functioning members of our society. Unfortunately, it does not happen naturally. The percentage of students who decide for themselves to delve beyond the syllabus is disappointingly low. We, as teachers, need to be the examples for them to follow. The syllabus is a base point but we must indicate what else is out there for them to discover.

I appreciate this sounds an awful lot like hard work. Not only learning your specification but what others are teaching as well?! The job of a maniac! However, there is an easy solution… Explore and Rosewell lectures. Sit and listen about the wider world. From brain surgery to rainforests; classical myths to Chinese politics; just sit and listen. Enhancing our own learning can only help our students and demonstrate to them the benefits of the holistic education. By developing the breadth of our own learning, we build the level of scholarship throughout the school. We tear down those ‘Ivory Towers’. We create a love of learning beyond the minimum required. Moreover, we can show that it is worth the time. Unfortunately, we are time poor as a profession. However, demonstrating that it is worth that hour to listen to a lecture will increase its value for everyone; students, staff, friends, parents etc. The more people we can have attending these lectures, the more our collective intellectualism will grow and flourish. If we consider the methodology of our recent visitor Guy Claxton, we should be facilitating and encouraging learning by the students and allowing them to do the majority of the research and discovery. What better way to embody this ideology than to show support for extra-curricular and cross-curricular learning by an expert in the field.

There is a famous expression ‘Jack of all trades and Master of none.’ What a negative ideology, I have been tarred many times with this linguistic brush. “Why would you want to try many things when you could be really good at one thing?” “Why would you do something if you are not the best at it?” It creates a culture of fearing the unknown, of deriding those who are not experts but are enthused. No one wants to be a Jack, but people rarely finish the expression. In full:

‘Jack of all trades, Master of none, but better than a Master of one.’ 

Let’s stop being Masters and be Jacks. Let’s broaden our knowledge of the entirety of what the world has to offer. Let’s Explore. You never know what you might learn.

Twitter: @AcademicSch_WHS