Approaches to the use of online language tools and AI to aid language learning

Adèle Venter, Head of German at WHS, considers how, in a time when Google Translate has insidiously pervaded every homework task, students could be trained to use online language tools and AI to aid their language learning rather than lead them astray.

 

A few years ago – some of my students may still remember it – my Year 10 German class experienced a dark moment. Upon handing back their homework essays, I asked them to write me a note about the extent to which they had used Google Translate to complete their homework.

The atmosphere was grim as they sat writing their confessions.

It reminded me a bit of the confessing sheep in Animal Farm and I almost felt sorry for them. But no – this had to end. I explained to them how I was in fact not assessing their progress and understanding but rather how well (or not – as was still the case at the time) Google’s artificial intelligence manages to translate language completely out of context. I illustrated to them how they were sometimes unable to even translate the German in their essays, and how therefore, they had learnt nothing in the process, making my conscientious attempts to provide feedback on their writing a waste of time.

The Google Translate dilemma

Of course, this has been a much-discussed topic and the bane of foreign language teachers’ lives for some time now, as illustrated by this Twitter joke that did the rounds:

I still stand by everything I had said on that day. And I would like to think that it may have changed their outlook somewhat. But I have since changed my approach to it. Because, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Ultimately, it is also true that the Internet has become enormously useful in helping people with language acquisition. In the first instance, various language-learning applications have seen the light of day and people casually engage with these on various levels. If it means more people are able to buy croissants in France, or have a basic conversation with their grandchildren who live in Italy, it must be a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, the one thing that has remained true for the acquisition of a foreign language is that there is no quick and easy way to do so. I am of the firm belief that to really learn a language, it takes a lot of time, dedication and perseverance, and that your best chance of becoming proficient is to combine the formal learning of its grammar and vocabulary with immersion and exposure in authentic contexts.

Can AI tools play a useful role?

And so my question is mainly: what are the implications of the use of online tools for the dedicated language learner?

As a linguist, I do not deny that I use these myself all the time. But instead of just modelling my use of online dictionaries, conjugators and such, I have decided to engage my students more fully in the conversation so that they can be conscious of the advantages and pitfalls to various tools. I have told my students that I do not consider Google Translate to be one of the seven deadly sins anymore. After all, online translators have made enormous strides in past years, and a student workshop with Mrs Rachel Evans, our Director of Digital Learning, has revealed that more often than not, they tend to translate phrases and sentences, even idioms correctly.

Instead, I spread the message that whatever students do, they must ensure that they remain in charge of the things they write down. If they do not understand what they are writing, or why sentences are formulated in a certain way, they cannot hope to learn from it. I have consequently set up the following rules as guidance:

  1. Always turn to the dictionary first. There are excellent online dictionaries, and it is worth knowing which ones can be trusted to be correct and informative. It is important that they should understand that verified dictionaries offer synonyms, context and more information about the word, which translators do not. Dictionaries are a great source for developing intuition around words in varying contexts. The more advanced student could also draw on etymology. In the making of a linguist, these are skills well worth developing.
  2. Use online technology to enhance knowledge, not replace it. If pupils use the structures they have mastered as a starting point, they could explore replacing elements of the sentence (such as verbs by researching via a dictionary or conjugator).
  3. Keep the channels of communication open. Let your teacher know how you came by a certain word or phrase. I ask my students to highlight phrases they have constructed using a translator and indicate how they researched it. What were they trying to say? Going back to my second rule of course, are there ways of bringing across their meaning, using the structures they can already manage?

At a more advanced level, language learning becomes increasingly adventurous and as students gain independence, they are able to use language tools to develop the sophistication and concision of their expression. It is mainly younger students who experience frustration around their limited ability to express themselves. The following scenario serves as the perfect example of such a problem. A multilingual girl in Year 9 who is used to expressing herself effortlessly in various languages, produces the following sentence:

„Ich liebe Little Women weil es mich zum Weinen brachte.“

I love Little Women because it brought me to tears.

“Brought” as the imperfect form of the mixed verb “to bring” was rather more than I had counted on at her level and true enough, she did not understand the verb she had used, having typed in “it made me cry”. In fact, there is a myriad of grammatical complexities in this sentence that she had not yet mastered; she could not hope to construct such a sentence with her level of skill. Instead, a well-chosen adjective in an opinion phrase would have been within her reach and might have expanded her repertoire.

Learning to be independent and in control

I hope that having an open discussion will help students to become conscious of problems such as the example shown here and encourage them to use verified sources, finding those tools that are worthwhile learning aids. If they approach it with the right mind, these tools could help them to become truly skilled linguists who are able to reflect on elements of language in a sophisticated way. If language teachers can succeed in creating such healthy learning habits, they are likely to make a meaningful contribution towards developing students’ independence and ability to be life-long learners in the age of technology.

Who is in control? The human being.

Can outdoor learning create thinkers, risk takers and environmental pioneers?

Mrs Sarah Brierley, Miss Tiffany McIntyre and Miss Jade Mayes explore the impacts of learning beyond the classroom on pupils’ social, emotional, physical development and academic progress.

We are the Wild Girls

Outdoor Education is an umbrella term for any educational session which takes place outside the classroom; from Maths lessons in the playground, to visits to the Tower of London. For us, Wild Girls provides our pupils with the opportunity to jump in puddles, build shelters, write poetry in the woods, fly kites and learn to love nature. As we like to say, there is no Wi-Fi in the woods, but you’ll find a better connection! Children are also given permission to play freely, to explore their natural environment and take controlled risks.

Meet the facilitators with a vision

Participants are destined to achieve. The Wild Girls’ facilitators aim to make observations based on each individual girl, in order to scaffold their learning and allow them to take controlled risks.

Sarah Brierley:
I moved to the centre of Wimbledon 4 years ago, from the beauty of The Lake District, which offers a different outdoor classroom for each day of the year. As a mountain leader and RYA dingy sailing instructor, when I shared my vision with my fellow outdoor instructors from the Lakes, they were bewildered at how I could possibly suggest delivering outdoor education in central London- but we’ve done it!

Jade Mayes:
As a Year 1 teacher, I fully understand the importance of hands on, child-led learning. I have a background in Forest School Education, and bring this knowledge to our new initiative. My vision is to foster a community of individuals, who have just as much love for the natural world as I do, and in return will take care of it for future generations.

Tiffany McIntyre:
As a Reception teacher, I aspire to make this project more than just taking learning from indoors into an outside area, but to go further and provide opportunities that cannot be achieved within the confines of a classroom. Once the walls are removed, children have a sense of space and freedom that allows their young minds to investigate, explore and create on a larger scale. They move freely, building confidence through shared enterprise and hands-on experiences. Whether this involves building a pirate ship or investigating the best consistency of sand to build a sand castle, it all supports the children in the acquisition of skills and encourages them to develop independent thought, where the possibilities are endless.

The importance of learning beyond the classroom

We can learn so much from nature. The trees in a forest care for each other, communicating through their roots. They warn each other about dangers and use this network to decide when to seed. We can learn so much from this ‘wood wide web’ (Flannary, 2016.)  The lessons trees provide us about team work are endless. Isolated trees have much shorter lifespans than those living connected together in the woods (Wohlleben, 2016.) Surely, this is a lesson that will support our pupils as they progress through life.

Our KS1 sessions include the use of a range of activities and resources to encourage our pupils to participate. Nature provides a therapeutic environment for pupils to truly be themselves and grow as individuals. This point of view is supported by Carl Roger in his book A Way of Being – ‘I love to create such an environment, in which persons, groups, and even plants can grow…real relationships with persons, hands dirtied in  the soil, observing the budding flower, or viewing a sunset, are necessary to my life’ (Rogers, 1995). This concept is at the heart of our practice and has already been successfully implemented within our Junior School.

Holistic pedagogy

The holistic approach is naturally engrained in the structures of a Wild Girls’ session, as emotions, fears, conflicts and friendships form an intrinsic part of each session. This offers children the opportunity to grapple with challenging processes, as they play freely within the woodland setting.

In an urban environment, it is essential for children to have access to nature. For us to be able to extend these opportunities as part of our Wild Girls programme is invaluable.

In addition to this, children need nature for the healthy development of their senses and consequently their learning and creativity. Asking children to use their senses to interpret the world around them can be challenging for those who have not had the opportunity to develop these faculties.

These classrooms come cheap too. London provides the world’s largest urban forest, ‘8.4 million trees for 8.6 million people’ (Wood, 2019.) In London, most areas of outdoor space are free to access and close to transport networks making it easy and free for schools to use them.

Wild Girls in Action

At Wimbledon High Junior School, we have created different activities for our girls to explore whilst outdoors.

In Year 6, our pupils study navigational skills in a woodland setting, in order to learn how to use compasses and read maps. These are skills that could be potentially get lost in the high-tech world our children are being brought up in. When learning about directions on a compass, one misconception emerged when a pupil suggested that North is always dictated by the direction of the wind! Even if she never uses a compass again in her life, she has been afforded a valuable learning opportunity.

In Reception, these experiences are focused on inviting the pupils to be a part of their environment, to observe and respect what they can see, hear and feel. Using stories as a starting point, we connect with nature and encourage the girls to lead the learning experience. However, the most fun our girls have had was splashing in the puddles on their way into the forest! These opportunities provide the foundation for these young learners to grow and to develop as they move through the Junior School.

Year 1 pupils have used free play to explore the woods, making wind chimes and mud cakes, whilst coming across many mini beasts to identify. In the outdoors, nature is in control. Although you can predict what the weather is going to do, you can’t predict what children will learn the most from in the natural classroom you’ve created. This is the beauty of outdoor education.

Final thoughts

This opportunity to roam unchecked and learn life skills in the outdoors is arguably the most important education any child can have. It is enriching for the soul and brings out character traits that may be hidden whilst learning indoors. In the short space of time that we have been delivering ‘Wild Girls’, we have observed social connections becoming stronger and more universal, and an even more cohesive sense of community emerging. Personality types who may be naturally more reserved, have been given the space to show the qualities of leadership and collaboration. In an ever-changing, evolving world, giving children the space and freedom to be a child, has never been more important.


References

Wohlleben P, The Hidden Life of Trees, London, William Collins, 2017

Wood P, London is a Forest, London, Quadrille, 2019

Training to train or training to compete?

Coutts Coutts-Wood, Director of Sport at WHS, looks at the psychology behind training and being active in a competitive environment, and how we can make training more effective.

 

Training is designed to develop a player; it creates a safe learning environment where repetition and reinforcement help to foster the necessary mental and physical skills required for competition. It is where you can try to be the best version of yourself. In training or practice, athletes are often more relaxed and focused, full of positivity and excitement and it is the space in which making mistakes repeatedly is ok. It is where the athlete can learn from errors and where faults are forgivable and ‘allowed’ – after all it’s only training, right?

It can be too easy to approach training or lessons with the mind-set that your time is not as important, that the rewards from excelling are lower and consequently less value is placed upon quality of performance. It’s very easy for pupils at times to think, ‘it’s just a lesson, it’s only a practice, it doesn’t matter’. Does this, therefore, allow the quality of practice and training to diminish? Should poor performance during these sessions be excusable from peers, coaches and athletes alike?

U15 Tumbling Team
U15 Surrey Tumbling Team Champions

Of course, in competition everything is different. The low stake, relaxed and positive emotional state established in training does not always translate into competition. Instead, the ‘now it really counts’ mantra attached to the performance encourages increased pressure from the athletes on themselves. It can be true that for most athletes, once in the competition, thoughts of self-doubt and disbelief creep in so that they tense up, and their fluidity and control is compromised and consequently the performance is not as good as in training. Moreover, athletes experience cognitive overload and narrower attentional focus during competition. A great example of this was shown in in early research on the topic by Yerkes and Dodson and is known as the ‘Inverted U Theory of Arousal’ (1908). Their model looks at the relationship between arousal and performance and suggests that optimal performance should occur when arousal is at a moderate level. If arousal is too low (perhaps in training) or too high (often in competition) performance quality can be compromised.

If we always have this distinction between training and competition, we are never truly preparing ourselves appropriately. It is important to think about how we can get the best results when it really matters and what that means during practices and lessons. It seems vital that any training is structured to mimic the types of competition that we are striving to excel in.

Using training effectively

U13C Netball Team

It is our job as physical educationalists to ensure that our athletes have the ability to handle the psychological ‘now it really counts’ challenge of the event alongside the physical demands. It is now much more common that professional athletes seek sport psychology services to learn how to perform in a competition as well as they do in practice. As Weinberg and Gould (2007) discuss ‘a lack of physical skills is not the real problem – rather, a lack of mental skills’ can be the cause of poor performance.

Your physical ability has not changed or decreased, so why does your performance? In training you don’t always put pressure upon yourself. In training you stay focused on what you are doing. In training you are relaxed and having fun. We must repeatedly train ourselves to always be competition ready, to improve the flow of skills, and to cope with the fast paced, high intensity environment where more is at stake.

So if we really want the performance of our athletes under pressure to resemble what has been done in lessons and training, we need to shift the view that competition is far more exciting than training, of greater importance and only enjoyable because of the extrinsic incentives that motivate performers. We must duplicate exactly what has been done in those practice sessions mentally and improve the coping skills under pressure to reflect the demands of the competitive environment. If we never practice in these high stakes situations, we will never be prepared for competition.

Conclusion

As teachers, I believe it is our role to make training as stimulating as competition, create problem solving opportunities and appropriate challenge. We must fashion training environments where we prepare our athletes for competition and move away from the view that practice is just where you go to train to prove you deserve to be in the team.
So, perhaps next time that dentist appointment is due to be booked over a games lesson, rather than thinking ‘it’s only training’, think would you approach a fixture with the same attitude?
You can therefore expect the quantity of competition-based game scenarios to be increased in lessons and training going forwards to ensure than we are ‘practicing’ at the desired intensity and with the high quality that we know we will need when we formally compete. More ‘mock’ competitions, a bigger audience present, sessions where the stakes are higher will all help reinforce the fact that training and competition should not be seen as separate. Ultimately we will be competing in our training and training to compete.


References
Weinberg, R; Gould, D (2007). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology.

Yerkes, R.M; Dodson, J.D (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Physiology, 18. 459-482

For interest, I would recommend reading Bounce by Matthew Syed where he discusses the importance of purposeful practice.

What role does the House system play in a modern school?

Miss Hannah Johnston, Head of Houses at WHS, examines why the House system is as important in the modern world as it was in the famous tales of Mr Chips and Harry Potter.

Identity

Mention ‘Houses’ in the context of a school and for a certain generation it is hard not to be instantly transported to ‘Hogwarts’ and all the connotations of the sorting hat. Originating from boarding schools where students lived in a ‘house’ the inclusion of a House system is popular among schools, and, thanks to J.K Rowling and those 4 most famous of Houses there is more awareness than ever of the advantages the House system brings.

While we do not rely on a sentient hat, each year we have the ‘Stepping In’ ceremony where our new girls are warmly received into their House, a pivotal moment in their entry to senior school. As girls and staff cheer from the side-lines, the initial ties of camaraderie and identity are being formed.

The Specialist School and Academies Trust (SSAT) found that in 2008 16% of Year 6 students did not feel ready to begin senior school. They advocated the House system as a way of ensuring students felt supported by their peers from the beginning; “Ensuring students feel comfortable in their new surroundings and making them feel part of their new environment as quickly as possible” (Garner, 2008). By dividing the school into 4 smaller groups (Arnold, Hastings, Meredith and Scott) we allow students to develop their sense of belonging quickly and help to remove the fear of ‘small fish big pond’ that can often follow, particularly if a girl has joined from a smaller primary school environment.

Above: Year 7 Stepping In; 2019

Collaboration

One of the main strengths of the House system is giving students of all ages the opportunity to work together, creating a truly cohesive environment and ensuring that age is not a barrier to friendship and collaboration. This reflects the life that we are preparing our girls for outside of WHS, nowhere beyond the confines of a classroom will they be required to work / interact with those only of their own age.

As David Tongue (Head, Brighton College Bangkok) said of the value of the House system; “camaraderie and solidarity is second to none and the benefits of this vertical interaction, where the young look up to the elder and where the elder look out for and support the younger, are profound”. We see this throughout the year in WHS but perhaps nowhere is it as evident as during House Drama. Watching the Year 7 and Year 12 students plan, rehearse and perform is one of the highlights of the Winter term. The dedication shown by all involved and the support given by fellow House members at each performance is wonderful.

Of course it is not only students who are allocated a House, staff are also involved. The sense of community that pervades throughout the school would, arguably, be incomplete if students were not given the opportunity to interact with teachers beyond those they see in the classroom, thereby encouraging stronger relationships between adults and students” (Green, 2006). Our recent ‘Connections Fortnight’ highlighted the importance of celebrating the relationships formed in school. Where better than to see this than through our Houses, small communities within the larger whole formed on shared interests and challenges.

Above: House Drama 2019

Competition       

To talk about the House system and neglect to mention competition would be foolish. Potentially it is the competitive element of the Houses that people think of first. The all-important termly round up where the current leader is announced to great fanfare, the selection of mini competitions each term and, of course, Sports Day. Competition is good, it drives our students to improve, improves collegiality and teaches how to fail.

The House system is first and foremost inclusive of all learning types and interests. We have sporting (swimming, netball, hockey and sports day), artistic (Big Draw, House Music and House Drama) and cross-curricular (Robot Wars and the upcoming Spelling Bee and House Escape) events.

As was seen in a study between engagement and performance the sense of belonging provided by House membership, and the opportunity to enter into competitions with your peers can have numerous academic benefits as well as the social-emotional (Lee, 2014). Those who feel comfortable and supported enough to participate in House events are more likely to feel able to commit themselves fully to academia.

Leadership

Above: Current House Captains

The House system allows for the promotion of student’s responsibility, “giving pupils the chance to learn and develop leadership skills is an outstanding benefit” (Tongue, 2016). The House Captains hone their leadership skills in the role, managing not only their peers but also learning how to ‘manage up’ among the staff body.

In another case of preparation for life beyond school, our House Captains rise to each challenge set, developing impressive time management and delegation skills.

In the upcoming House Robot Wars, the Captains have delegated the training sessions to those in KS4 that they have identified as having leadership qualities and the necessary Computer skills. Events such as House Music promote team work and communication. It takes a small army of girls to form the small group, organise whole House rehearsals and teach the choreography, yet everyone throws themselves in with dedication.

While we have our 4 House Captains there are opportunities throughout the year groups to take on smaller leadership roles, recent House Jigsaw saw students in Year 9 take charge and each inter-house sports team has a captain.

Above: House Masterchef

The House system searches for ways that students and staff can feel more connected to and involved with the community around them. It facilitates discussions between the most junior and most senior of school and fostering friendly competitive spirit along the way.


References

Garner, R., 2008. State secondaries urged to bring back the house system. [Online]  Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/state-secondaries-urged-to-bring-back-the-house-system-913930.html

Green, D. G., 2006. Welcome to the House System. Educational leadership: journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A, p. 63.

Lee, J.-S., 2014. The Relationship between Student Engagement and Academic Performance: Is It a Myth or Reality?. Journal of Educational Research, pp. 177-185.

Tongue, D., 2016. The House System: a typically British educational institution. [Online]
Available at: https://www.relocatemagazine.com/articles/education-the-house-system-a-typically-british-educational-institution

How does Computer Science equip us for life?

Mr Ian Richardson, Head of Computer Science at WHS, examines the broader transferrable skills that pupils can develop in the subject, and how these can help pupils to prosper in life away from the screen.

Computer Science is a unique subject which is developing at an incredibly rapid pace. In many conversations with parents, it seems that everyone grasps the importance of understanding how computers work and of being able to bend them to our will. However, since the change from the Information and Communication Technology syllabi, a number of parents and colleagues are still unsure as to what it is we, as Computer Scientists, do in our classrooms.

The simple principle is that our pupils should be able to sit down at a computer and be presented with a problem. They should be able to start from nothing but a blank page and then design, implement, test and evaluate a program which solves that problem. The scale of the challenge is significant, whether at A Level or Year 7. The little victories and celebrations along the way are what get students into coding and make teaching the subject so enjoyable. In this article, I am going to look at what I think are the key transferrable skills for the subject.

Coding
Above: From Gov.uk

The Essential “Tools” for Computing

The curriculum for the subject is designed to promote thinking skills and metacognition. The first key skill with which pupils become acquainted is abstraction. A simple everyday example of abstraction at work is the map of the London Underground; the map does not depict the geographical placement of stations, but simply the connections between them. Abstraction is the skill of seeing the woods, despite the many trees that could obscure the view. By teaching our pupils the skill of abstraction, we can teach them to think beyond the details of a problem and to think about the patterns and the connections which in turn teaches them to make generalisations to help solve a problem.

Next comes decomposition; breaking a large problem down into increasingly smaller sub-problems until they can be solved easily. It is instinctive for most pupils, when presented with a problem, to worry about the entirety of it. It takes practice to learn to develop a structure, to work out the key parts of a solution and to build from there. Students learn to “Divide and Conquer” for success and this approach can help students to solve problems in any future learning tasks which require design skills.

Finally comes the programming itself. It can seem that there are simply huge numbers of confusing commands to learn within programming. However, it is the structure of the program which is of the greatest importance and in this respect there are relatively few things to learn. As a student continues, they may become familiar with subroutines, classes and modules but on the whole, it boils down to sequence, selection, iteration. Individual commands and keywords can be looked up in reference books, but the skill of structuring program takes time and practice to develop. It takes time to master (think Anders Ericsson and 10,000 hours) but encourages pupils to approach problems methodically.

As well as those all-important subject skills, Computer Science has the capacity to help us grow and develop as individuals.

Failure as a Stepping Stone to Success

Coding is a discipline which gives us unparalleled opportunities to conquer our fear of failure. It is often estimated that the industry average for errors is “about 15 – 50 errors per 1000 lines of delivered code.”[1]. It can be daunting to receive error messages when you first start to learn to program and it seems like you struggle to type a single line without making a mistake. Over time, pupils can learn to:

1 – Accept that they have made a mistake

2 – Accept that they have the capacity to put it right

3 – Analyse their own work to find the error (often as simple as a missing parenthesis or extra space)

Exposure to lots of low-stakes risk-bearing situations through programming and debugging can teach resilience, independence and curiosity. It also helps to develop patience and a sense of humour can go a long way too.

Creativity and Curiosity

Computing can be easily overlooked when thinking about creative subjects. Computer programmers use the tools at their disposal to solve challenges every day. Successful computing students learn to master the simple techniques at their disposal and begin to apply them in new scenarios. Over time, they start to think up their own projects and to investigate their own ideas. Perhaps they start to see ways in which a project in another subject might be enhanced with some automation.

Flow

Programming can become an all-encompassing activity. There is always one more bug to fix, or one further improvement to make. Along the way, there are also small moments of joy and times when a pupil can make a computer do something fun or exciting. Between the two extremes of frustration and celebration, it is easy to lose track of time. The ability to focus on details and to deliver with precision are yet more useful skills that pupils can develop through the subject.

Independence

Whilst the theory aspects of the subject can be taught in a more traditional manner, the practical elements of Computer Science have to be learned rather than taught. Whilst individual students require more or less scaffolding to come to an answer, the PRIMM model for teaching (Predict, Run, Investigate, Modify, Make)[2] encourages independence of thought and a structured approach to tasks and trains the student to analyse and learn from what is presented to them, rather than expecting a teacher to impart knowledge.

Evaluative Thinking

One of the key skills that pupils are taught in computing is to evaluate. It is one thing to know how to understand or to build a program, but quite another to be able to compare two different algorithms for completing the same task.

Pupils are taught to look at algorithms such as “Bubble Sort” and “Quicksort”, to understand the differences between them and to make judgements as to which is best in a given situation. As they continue to study, they learn formal language for explaining the comparisons, as well as how to spot patterns in code that may lead to inefficiency.

In addition, given the impact of algorithms on everything from advertising to politics via driverless cars, it is also crucial for students to be able to articulate the ethical arguments for and against the use of technology. Students of the subject learn to understand the potential and the limitations of computers and have the potential to lead the debate in the future.

Conclusion

There is more to studying Computer Science than people first think. Students can equip themselves with a whole host of transferrable skills ranging from abstraction to patience, all of which will positively impact their school studies, their further education and beyond. To assume that Computer Science is simply about computers would be wrong.


REFERENCES

[1] S. McConnell, Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, Microsoft Press, 2nd Edition June 2004, p521

[2] S. Sentence, J.Waite and M.Kallia, Teachers’ Experiences of using PRIMM to Teach Programming in School (Author Pre-Print),[website], January 2019, https://primming.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/pre_print_teachers__experiences_of_using_primm_to_teach_programming_in_school.pdf,  (accessed 31 January 2020)

Do table top role playing games have a place in the classroom?

Mr Rob Dunn, Head of Physics at Wimbledon High School, known to some as Fyro, the half-Orc Bard, discusses the place that table-top RPGs (role-playing games) might have in schools generally and in supporting learning in the classroom.

I am proud to say, I’m a nerd. In the past, that term was defined as someone who loves ‘uncool’ things such as Physics, Maths, Computers, and of course Dungeons and Dragons. But now, thanks in part to the popularity of The Big Bang Theory, The Witcher, and Stranger Things, the nerd has become cool, and along with them, everything that they were associated with.

As educators, it can often seem that we are competing for the attention of our students with the influences of pop-culture, so when pop-culture directs their attention to us it would be missed opportunity not to capitalise on it.

Dice
Above: A d20, the most commonly used die in table-top role-playing via Wikimedia. 

For those readers who are unfamiliar with how table-top role-playing games (RPGs) work, they are simply a structure and set of rules that allow players a space to live in a shared imagination. This shared imaginary world is curated by one player known as the ‘Game Master’ or GM. For beginners, this world usually based on published source material, such as the ever-popular Forgotten Realms of Wizard of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons. However, once the basics of gameplay have been grasped the only limit is your imagination, or perhaps a handful of dice that seem determined to kill you!

You play all sat around a table together with the GM at the head. You’ll debate with your fellow adventurers over who needs to do what next to solve the seemingly endless torrent of problems that are being thrown at you, you’ll be running a constant string of probabilities through your head as you try to decide if the chance is glory is worth the risk of another throw of the dice, you’ll socialise with your friends, and above all, you’ll share in the telling of a story that is unique to you and your group.

Playing RPGs develops a player’s imagination, creativity, storytelling, confidence, and the depth of social interactions. These are all skills that as a teacher I long for my students to show in the classroom, regardless of the curriculum I am trying to teach. In Physics particularly being able to think outside the box to solve a tricky exam question is often the difference between an A and A*, so if we can teach just a little of that in an activity that the students voluntarily commit to, then to me that is a ‘critical hit!’

Above: Nikolai Telsa in his laboratory in 1899

Other topics we teach in Physics can be very abstract and difficult for some students to engage with. Perhaps if we could immerse the students 1880s New York and the electrifying battle between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, we might make the often opaque world of transformers a little less mystifying.

I wonder if this might work in other subjects as well. An English department might base a game in the world of the text they are studying, or a history lesson might take the students through the dizzying streets of medieval London. In Politics, students might develop their own systems of government for the world in which they’re playing, while the geographers draw topologically accurate maps that they can use in games that display the different land and rock formations they have studied. In Music, the composer Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote the music for the Final Fantasy game series, is a set composer at A Level, enabling pupils to study the link between music and gaming.

At Wimbledon High School we have a growing extracurricular Dungeon’s and Dragons club with 3 different campaigns in play, some written and run by the students themselves, and one even counting teachers among the party of adventures. We have a great time playing each Friday lunchtime, and as I head to afternoon lessons I can’t help but wonder if a little bit of that style of fun and social learning can find a place in my next lesson.

So I’m calling on teachers everywhere, join me at the table and let’s ‘roll initiative’.

“Vaulting the mere blue air that separates us”: History and connection

Ms Holly Beckwith, acting Head of History at WHS, looks at how history can connect past, present and future.

A true heroine left the world when Toni Morrison died last August. At university, I devoured her novels and vividly remember reading The Bluest Eye, Jazz and Beloved. They connected me to another experience and a different way of viewing the world. They enabled me to see the pain and disruptive effect of trauma on consciousness and identity and feel a deep sense of empathy for fictional characters and an understanding of their experiences that I had not and could never have. In her novels, we vault “the mere blue air that separates us” effortlessly.

History is all about vaulting the mere blue air. Through studying the stories of the past, we vault the mere blue air of time and circumstance to access another, often unfamiliar and distant, experience. We connect to the human stories of the places we live and the places we travel. One of the reasons for studying the past is to render the unfamiliar, familiar, whilst simultaneously understanding the distinct otherness of the past.

What I loved about reading Toni Morrison’s novels is the powerful way she set about disrupting what we think of as familiar. In Beloved, she confronts ‘national amnesia’ on the subject of slavery in America, invoking the genre of the slave narrative and disrupting it by bearing witness to the interior lives if the slave narrator, whose story was hitherto constrained and shaped by the Abolitionist cause. She disrupts the single hegemonic narrative, using the novel as a vessel through which to tell multiple stories. She urges us to seek new connections to the past but she also views the past as something that cannot be easily contained, its remnants multiply in memory and ‘rememory’ and ghosts.

As History teachers, one of our purposes should be to disrupt the familiar and received stories of the past that are propagated in the media and public discourse. One of my lesson mantras is that asking questions about the past is just as important as constructing answers to them. While the National Curriculum in England for History aims for pupils to “know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day” and a secure chronological grounding is important, it is fundamental that we don’t see the past as something that can be retold as a single story.

Such epistemological concerns have been part of the debate among History teachers for years, but there has been a drive more recently to render our curricula more diverse. While our current History curriculum provision at Wimbledon High engages with multiple and varied narratives of the past (by, for example, exploring connections along the Silk Road in Year 7 or using Said’s Orientalism to question our way in which Year 13 perceive colonial encounters) there is always room for us to rethink how we can do this in new and interesting ways. This will be particular for us over the next few terms and why we are aiming to build up a wider conversation surrounding diversity and curriculum planning when we host a conference at Wimbledon this summer for History teachers within the GDST and at our partnerships schools.

Our study of the past should vault the mere blue air and seek new connections.


References

Tracy K. Smith https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/opinion/tracy-smith-toni-morrison.html

Toni Morrison The Origin of Others

 

Connecting the Arts in the Primary Classroom through Ekphrastic poetry

Ms Beth Ashton looks at ways we can connect the Arts in Primary Education, arguing that the discipline of ekphrasis (connecting visual arts with poetic form) helps learners to develop creative expression.

The power of the visual image in relation to development has been extensively studied. Many of the skills of analysis used in decoding an image are also present in the analysis of text. Images are the way we first experience the world, and inspire immediate and emotive responses from students. I chose to explore the use of paintings as a stimulus for poetry writing with Year 6 students. This discipline of using visual arts in dialogue with poetic form is a discipline known as ekphrasis, and has been used by celebrated writers throughout literary history.

It is significant to note that simply using an image as a stimulus for poetry would not meet the criteria necessary to achieve true ekphrastic work – the intentionality of the artist is essential in order to create a dialogue between poet (in this case Year 6 girls), painting, and artist.

Research shows that when using a painting as the stimulus for poetry writing, children invent a context, story and message around the image. They are thus inventing their own story and interpretation of the artwork, and communicating truths about themselves in the process, through the meanings they project onto the painting. The poet is not simply writing a descriptive piece about the subject (i.e. the painting), they are using the subject as a way to communicate truths about themselves.

This process of exploring context and creating a message through creative expression is one which can, if we are not vigilant, fall by the wayside in the classroom. The National Curriculum focuses on the structural elements of writing, such as grammar and syntax. Whilst these are of course essential, they are not, and should never be, the driving reason behind the study of English Literature. Reading objectives and national assessments currently require students to interpret a text in order to locate an absolute, definitive meaning, which is not open to subjective interpretation. Anyone who has any experience of literature, from Shakespeare to Horrid Henry, knows that meaning is fluid and highly dependent on the context of the reader; this is what makes reading one of life’s great pleasures.

By engaging children in writing based on visual images and artwork, we are encouraging them to embrace the idea of ambiguity, and the possibility that there are many different ways to interpret artwork, whatever the medium. We are also teaching our students that the meanings we make are dependent on our context, and may change over time. These skills are essential, as pupils learn to grapple with difference and tolerate alternative perspectives to their own world view.

In order to explore Ekphrastic poetry, pupils studied Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, analysing the image as a whole class and trying to predict what could be happening within the image. They then read Tennyson’s poem of the same name. The second intervention followed the same structure, with a different painting. This time, the pupils analysed George and the Dragon painted by Paolo Uccello in the 14th Century. Pupils then read an abridged version of the poem Not My Best Side, by U.A. Fanthorpe[1], written in the 1970s. Through writing in role as the characters in the painting, Fanthorpe produced a commentary on established gender roles. The inner personalities of the characters are revealed in first person, showing a subversion of the roles played in the painting.

Following analysis of the second painting and poem pair, the pupils were invited to choose a piece of artwork to bring to class, from which they would produce their own poem. Poems ranged from first-person diary entries, written in role as Ophelia, to reflections on Monet’s Waterlilies, writing in role as a lonely bridge, stretching over a pond.

George and the Dragon painted by Paolo Uccello

Ekphrastic poetry is a useful and engaging way in which to encourage children to take ownership over different art forms and begin to see the links across the curriculum. It is also an impactful and insightful way to create a classroom which values ambiguity and open-ended meaning making.


[1]
See http://english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/uccello.html for the full poem

Learned helplessness: is the modern approach to pastoral care really helping our students?

This Winter Term the Schools Practice at Odgers Berndtson launches the first series of articles for its new Voices in Education series. These articles are written by a number of leading voices across the schools sector. They have been written to start conversations about important challenges, opportunities and ideas within the schools sector today. In this original article, Ms. Fionnuala Kennedy, Senior Deputy Head at Wimbledon High School GDST, writes about the need to ensure that pastoral care in schools is enabling resilience and not teaching helplessness.

I am realising as I get (inexorably) older that there are certain things at which I have learnt to be entirely helpless. These include but are in no way limited to: replacing the spotlights in my kitchen ceiling; knowing how the staffroom photocopier works; memorising people’s phone numbers; and running 10km. It horrifies me to have had this realisation. I consider myself to be an independent person, capable and well-educated, and yet these are all basic things I can no longer do. They’re not things I could never do, such as dancing en pointe, or flying a plane, but things I have slowly erased from my skillset, either because I no longer require the ability to do them as I have someone else to do them for me (ceiling lights, photocopying), or technology means I no longer have to use my brain to complete these tasks (phone numbers), or I haven’t practised them enough and so have lost the ability to do them (running).

We’ll all have these elements of our lives that we can no longer access, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s simply inevitable that in the wiki/google/Alexa age, we no longer need to memorise phone numbers or indeed anything; that knowledge is no longer necessary or even relevant (nonsense, of course); that a key aspect of becoming more senior in your career means you’ll forget how to do some of the more administrative tasks; and that as we get older we have less time to spend on leisure activities such as running.

But, it got me thinking, this erosion of ability, this learned helplessness I have slowly developed as a result of others doing things for me, or because I haven’t exercised the right muscles to maintain the skill: to me, this loss of ability perfectly represents a key and indeed increasingly crucial element of pastoral care in schools which is threatening the ability of our pupils to develop skills for themselves. This is no way to minimise the importance of supporting young people experiencing poor mental health, and Wimbledon High is a pioneer in ensuring we are open in our thinking and discussions around those serious issues. But it is my increasing concern that the ever-earlier interventions of pastoral leaders and carers, as well as the anxiety surrounding the modern approach to parenting, means that teenagers are losing the ability to help themselves in testing situations. And we know it’s an ability they are losing, rather than one they never had – just like my running. When you see a toddler learning to walk, they will naturally pick themselves up after a tumble, using the nearest item of furniture to carefully but determinedly find their feet again. They learn for themselves that they are not helpless, that it is within their ability literally to keep on going. So we know children instinctively understand what it is to work something out, to struggle until a goal is met and to rely on their own strength to do so.

It stands to reason, then, that when we remove obstacles from children’s paths at the first sign of struggle or distress, when we over-medicalise or put into a therapeutic context what could well be simply an expression of sadness or anger, and when we move in to solve problems for young people rather than asking them how they wish to approach an issue for themselves, we are encouraging learned helplessness, removing from them slowly but surely the ability to cope and navigate as they head off into the world, without us acting as stabilisers. Our intentions are wholly good, and the outcome a potential disaster. Resilience must be developed by the individual themselves, not handed out as a gift.

So, what’s the answer? Well: we must be robust with parents, laying out the approach of the school and sticking to it, not giving in to parental pressure to intervene in an area of a pupil’s life when you know it’s not the right call. We quote to our parents Beckett’s phrase: ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better’, adding that what he did not write was ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Text your mum, she’ll ring the school to complain and you’ll be put into the netball team after all’. A true, trusting partnership with parents is absolutely crucial.

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Photo above (Pinterest)

And what about the pupils? I really like asking them to adopt the ‘Three Before Me’ mantra: which three things have they tried before coming to me for help, and why do they think those things didn’t’ work? I’ll guarantee that you’ll find that 9 times out of 10 they are yet to try anything for themselves…

And finally, what about us as educators? Well, it’s difficult, but I try always to ask myself: am I unconsciously removing obstacles here without needing to do so? If so, is it because it’s quicker to arrive at a solution which will suit the child and parents, and I am very busy? Is it because I genuinely care and really want to help alleviate the suffering of the pupil short term? The answer is almost always yes to at least one if not both of those questions. We all came into this career because we are the solvers of problems, the finders of solutions, and because we want young people to be happy and to thrive. But we run the risk of raising a generation of young people who have learned from us not only Shakespeare, and differentiation, and chess, but also how not to manage themselves in times of difficulty or complexity.

It is not the role of schools to keep a child’s life storm-free. Rather, it should be the aim that every child leaves school able to say, along with Louisa May Alcott, ‘I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship’.

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The Case for Classics

Dr James Lloyd, Classicist in Residence at WHS, looks at the relevance of Classics in a modern world.

Education, both at school and at university, is about inspiring inquisitive minds, preparing the next generation to challenge the last, and equipping students with the skills to question the world they live in and to ask how they can make it better. But how do you distill such qualities into something that can be graded and assessed, condensed into a factor measured for league tables? What I mean to say by this, is that the case for Classics can be a difficult one to make. That being said, there are four key areas that make Classics a particularly important subject in today’s modern world.

Educational values

For me, Classics is a subject where the core elements of modern education can be championed. It is a subject whose topics range from discussions of love and religion, to critiques of imperialism and the myriad emotions of Greek tragedy. You need to be inquisitive to understand the context of the Odyssey, because, despite the similarities, the world of 700 BCE is very different to our own.

What Classics offers us is the time and space in which to reflect, an environment where ideas can be challenged. The questions posed by writers such as Homer, Sappho, Ovid, and Cicero are just as relevant now as they were the 2,000 years and more ago when they were first composed. This is not to place such writers on a plinth, like all too many museums do with looted statues, but to question the legacy of such writers, and what their purpose is in a largely more just and socially kinder world. As Dan Addis, also of Wimbledon, has recently argued, empathy is a key component of education, and here, Classics ranks highly.[1]

Classics is not an island

Or if it is, it is an island among an archipelago. Classics is not just the learning of Latin and ancient Greek. It can range from ancient economics and classical archaeology, to heritage and museum studies. In my case, it involves the study of iconography, material objects, inscriptions, and even ancient musical instruments. I have curated my own exhibition, and collaborated on the materials analysis of ancient religious offerings using pXRF and Pb isotope analysis.

The case for Classics is not an exclusionary one. It is a subject that works in conversation with many others. For example, a recent study published in the journal Reading and Writing has shown how learning Latin can help with English language acquisition.[2] The benefits of Classics can be found in other subjects too. History, Anthropology, Literature, Modern Languages, Architecture, and Law are just some of the areas in deep conversation with Classics. For example, studying the Aeneid helps us to be critical of the influences between politics and the arts today, and exploring the emotions of Sappho and the context of Ovid’s Art of Love help us to better understand contemporary issues of gender and sexuality.

Contemporary Concerns

Like any subject with a centuries’ long heritage, Classics was built on foundations that need to be rebuilt. This is the third point in my case for Classics.

In a recent open article on gender bias in one of the leading academic Classics journals, the Journal of Roman Studies, the editorial board found no evidence of gender bias in the acceptance of articles, but admitted that there was still much to be done in addressing the reasons as to why fewer women submitted work to the journal than their male colleagues.[3]

Above: Representation of female authors by volume. From Kelly et al. 2019

 

George Eliot would have doubtless responded to such a report with mixed feelings, given Latin and Greek were known to her Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch as “those provinces of masculine knowledge…  a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly”.

That being said, the last two decades have seen a wave of feminist retellings of Classical stories, from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad to Madeline Miller’s Circe. The success of these books lies not just in the skill of their authors, but also in the urgency of their messages, a challenge to traditionally male-dominated narratives. While Classics has been taught in Britain for centuries, the way that we teach authors such as Homer and Sappho to students at Wimbledon is certainly very different to the way such texts were taught even 50 years ago.

Indeed, one of the most refreshing aspects of teaching at Wimbledon High School so far has been the breadth of learning and creativity shown by the girls, whether that is in discussing the role of Medusa in Myth and Monsters Club, and how it subverts ideas of beauty and power, or in exploring what ancient views of divinity reveal about universal human concerns, to use just two examples.

Classics outside the Classroom

To use just two examples. One of the problems with making the case for Classics is that there are very few empirical studies on the benefits of studying it. One of the likely reasons for this is that it is a relatively specialised subject. In 2019, provisional data recorded 3,575 GCSE entries for Classical subjects; for A-Level entries, the provisional figure is 4,995.[4] This can make the case for Classics difficult.

In an ideal world, students should study Classics because they will enjoy it, but this is not an ideal world, it is a difficult world. Employers will want to know what transferable skills you can demonstrate; being able to quote Homer normally isn’t one of them. In a society asking for an increasingly digitally literate workforce, when a decision must be made between, for example, learning to code and learning past participles, it seems difficult to justify choosing the participles.

But Classics does not just teach students the patience and perseverance to learn complex grammars and vocabularies, it is a subject that encourages a healthy dose of skepticism. Not just of the traditional narratives that it asks us to engage with, but of how arguments and ideas are constructed more broadly. Not only that, but it teaches us an understanding of different cultures. These are the exact kind of soft skills that Google were surprised to find were most vital for its employees, when it conducted research into its employment processes.[5]

To return to the title of this piece, what is the case for Classics? For me, Classics has taught me a way of viewing the world with a healthy dose of skepticism and kindness. And in a world where things are more uncertain than they have been for some time, it is something of a comfort that Classics can help us to make some sense of it all.

[1] Addis, 2019.
[2]
 Crasson et al. 2018
[3] Kelly et al. 2019
[4] Ofqual, 2019.
[5] Harrel & Barbato, 2018


References:

Addis, D. (2019). WimTeach. http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/empathy-important-thing-can-teach-students/

Amy C. Crosson, Margaret G. McKeown, Debra W. Moore, Feifei Ye. Extending the bounds of morphology instruction: teaching Latin roots facilitates academic word learning for English Learner adolescents. Reading and Writing, 2018; DOI: 10.1007/s11145-018-9885-y

Harrell, M & Barbato, L. (2018). Google, Re:Work. https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/the-evolution-of-project-oxygen/

Kelly, C., Thonemann, P., Borg, B., Hillner, J., Lavan, M., Morley, N., … Whitton, C. (2019). Gender Bias and the Journal of Roman Studies: JRS EDITORIAL BOARD. Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 441–448. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0075435819000935

Ofqual. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/provisional-entries-for-gcse-as-and-a-level-summer-2019-exam-series

[1] Crasson et al. 2018.

[2] Kelly et al. 2019.

[3] Ofqual, 2019.

[4] Harrell & Barbato, 2018.