What progress has been made this year towards creating a diverse curriculum at WHS?

WHS Classroom

Miss Emily Anderson, Head of History at WHS, evaluates the progress of the diversity in the curriculum working party since September, and reflects on our next steps.

It has been both a challenge and a privilege to have been leading the working party examining diversity in the curriculum since the Autumn Term. Ensuring that our curriculum is fit for purpose in both empowering our students to be active citizens of the world in which they live, and reflecting both their identities and those they will live and work alongside in their local, national and global communities could not be a more vital part of our work as teachers, individually, in departments and as part of the whole school. Such a curriculum would simultaneously support our students and ensure they feel that they belong in the WHS community, and would empower them to understand and champion diversity in their lives beyond school. The curriculum is not a fixed entity, and the constant re-evaluation of it is one of, to my mind, the most challenging and important parts of our professional lives as teachers.

As members of the school community will be aware from his letters and assemblies, in the autumn Deputy Head Pastoral Ben Turner asked staff, as part of our commitment to systemic change, to scrutinise three different areas of our work as a school in order to better inform our future direction. Alongside our scrutiny of the curriculum, colleagues have been looking at our recruitment of students and staff and how we reach out to a broader and more diverse range of communities, and at our work with our students beyond the curriculum, in our pastoral, super-curricular and extra-curricular contexts.

WHS Partnerships

Examining the curriculum were staff from the arts, sciences and humanities, bringing a variety of perspectives. I wanted to make an ambitious but absolutely necessary distinction from the outset – that we cannot approach the curriculum by diversifying what is already there, but need to create a curriculum that is inherently diverse. We discussed the need to broaden our collective understanding of different identities (the GDST’s Undivided work has been very valuable in this regard), and to model open, honest and often difficult dialogue. The difficulties of the process of change were also considered, especially the transition from an old to a new curriculum, and the fear of being labelled knee-jerk or tokenistic until it became embedded and normal. This is, however, no excuse for not trying. Doing nothing is not an option. Three areas for evaluation emerged for us to take to departments:

  1. The day-to day – teachers’ understanding about different types of diversity, our use of language and resources in the classroom, encouraging more challenging and reflective discussions in the classroom.
  2. The medium term – creating a diverse curriculum at WHS – looking again at KS3, and evaluating our choices at KS4 and KS5 to identify more diverse lines of enquiry or exemplars in existing specifications, or opportunities to move to other boards.
  3. The bigger picture – joining the growing national conversation with exam boards to make changes to GCSEs and A Levels to better reflect diverse identities, critically evaluating the cultural assumptions and frameworks through which our knowledge is formed and which privilege certain identities over others, to problematise and ultimately change these in our teaching.

The reflections that came back from discussions at department level showed that much carefully considered planning is being undertaken across departments, in terms of the individuals whose voices are heard through study of their work, the enquiries that are planned to broaden our students’ horizons and the pedagogical implications of how we create an environment in which diverse identities can be recognised and understood.  

My own department (History) are completely reconceiving our curriculum. My colleague, Holly Beckwith, wrote a beautiful rationale for this in WimTeach last year which I would highly recommend reading.[1] We have been preparing for major curriculum change for a number of years, firstly through trialling experimental enquiries to pave the way, such as a new Y9 enquiry on different experiences of the First World War. Our choosing of a unit on the British Empire c1857-1967 at A Level – a unit whose framework could, if taught uncritically, be problematic in terms of what it privileges, but which enables us to at least explore, understand and challenge such power structures and give voice to some of the people it oppressed through the study of historical scholarship – also helps facilitate changes further down the school as it demands significant contextual knowledge about societies across the world before the age of European imperialism.[2] Now, we are in a position to put in place major and increasingly urgently needed changes for September 2021 at Year 7 and Year 10, which will lead to a transformed KS3 and KS4 curriculum over the next three years.

To pivot back to the whole-school context, I also met with student leaders from each year group who had collated ideas from their peers to feed back. These were wonderfully articulately and thoughtfully put, often critical, and unsurprisingly revealed a great appetite for change. As teachers and curriculum designers, there is a balance to be struck here between taking students’ views into account, and creating coherent and robust curricula where knowledge and conceptual thinking builds carefully as students progress up the school – areas of study cannot simply be swapped in and out. As I have alluded to above, for example we start sowing the seeds of contextual understanding for GCSE and A Level at Y7. Furthermore, this process will take time, as meaningful change always does, and so managing expectations is also something we must consider. In and of itself, modelling the process of systemic change is such a valuable lesson for our students so this must be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate this.

So far, this process of evaluation has prompted profound and necessary reflection by teachers not only on what we teach in the classroom, but on how our own understandings of our disciplines have been conditioned by our experiences and educations. As well as educating our students, we are also continually educating ourselves, often unlearning old ideas. There is still a significant way to go in creating the inherently diverse curriculum we are aiming for, and I look forward to continuing to challenge and be challenged as we work together as a community to, ultimately, try to do right by our students and our world.


References:

[1] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/vaulting-mere-blue-air-separates-us-history-connection/

[2] Akala, Natives, London, Two Roads, 2019; R. Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019; P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019;

How can studying our surroundings enrich historical enquiry?

Emily Anderson, Head of History, reflects on how the pandemic has thrown the department’s thinking about place into relief, and how this is manifest in the History classroom and in inter-disciplinary thinking.

Let’s observe, Attenborough style, the historian at work. What comes to mind as you peer tentatively into your imagination, careful not to disturb? I would be certain that, to some extent, you would gravitate towards a library, or an archive, and rightly so. For this is where the historian finds their treasure, following lead upon lead to synthesise their research into new understanding, often of people and events far removed from our own experience. Whilst the primary location for our WHS historians is the classroom rather than the archive or library (with a healthy engagement with the latter, of course), the principle remains; understanding emerges through study of the sources.

And yet, how much poorer our understanding would be if we stayed in the archive. Venture outside, and our surroundings become another historical source, there to challenge and broaden our thinking. The potential of this has long inspired me: my Master’s dissertation in 2014 considered how far the political context of the debates over Home Rule in Ireland influenced the construction of Belfast City Hall, building on both an element of my undergraduate study but also my teaching at A Level at the time. Recently, I have felt the draw towards such lines of enquiry particularly keenly, as our world has shrunk due to the pandemic and the opportunities normally available to me and my department to explore the world for ourselves and, crucially, share this with our students on trips (always a wonderful experience) have not been available. Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I know that we are not alone in this.

Within the curriculum

We can, however, still incorporate the study of places into our curriculum. At A Level, we teach a study of the British Empire from c1857-1967. It is, of course, a very wide-ranging unit in terms of geographical reach and this is one of the things which drew us to it; the opportunity, not widely available at A Level, to study global history. The uniting focus of the course is Britain, but to only study the impact and debate from this perspective would be a severe dereliction of our duty as historians. The impact of the European empires on the physical landscape of periphery and metropole alike is striking – the more you look, the more you see and traditional narratives are disrupted. In our city, Notting Hill, now a by-word for the celebration of multi-culturalism, has become so because of migration from what was the Empire. To wander the streets and museums of South Kensington is to experience, to my mind, a showcase of the imperial project. Reading the testimonies of those involved in the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica, and coupling these with the incredible sense of place evoked by David Olusoga in his documentary work, means that even sites of memory far away and currently inaccessible to us can be explored in the classroom.[1]

At GCSE, our course looks at Berlin during the Cold War. I find the city both wonderfully vibrant and hauntingly evocative, and love taking our students there to experience it for themselves. It is the unexpected, small-scale artefacts that intrigue the most – the oversize floodlight which lit up the approach to the Berlin Wall, still on the front of an apartment block though the Wall is long gone; the first memorial to the Holocaust, barely registered by those who pass it in the suburb of Schöneberg; the American-style cinema built for the occupying troops but more at home in the Midwest. The questions students ask both on such trips and back in the classroom show how such experiences enable them to see the history they study in new ways. Excitingly, our new GCSE, which the current Y9s will study from September, gives us the opportunity to conduct a study of Spitalfields, an area shaped and enriched by the diverse communities which have settled there. Classroom and in-situ enquiry will work together to bring our understanding to life.

At Key Stage Three, we are embarking on a total overhaul of our curriculum. This gives us the exciting opportunity to reconsider how we incorporate our surroundings into historical study, and how we can use trips to their best advantage to complement it. Inspiration has abounded – one of the upsides of the past year has been the extraordinary availability of online seminars and training. We have been trialling some new enquiries with Year 9, including ‘What secrets of the past are hidden within the walls of a house?’, which uses the BBC programme and book ‘A House Through Time’ as a starting point for a study of social change in Liverpool in the 19th and 20th centuries.[2] Again, we have found ourselves drawing on a place – here a home – to focus and enrich our historical thinking.[3]

Inter-disciplinary opportunities

An interest in place, in all its complexities, is something we share with our colleagues and friends in Geography. You will have seen Dr Stephanie Harel’s article in October on this blog and this sparked thinking about how we could collaborate to share expertise and experience and develop understanding.[4] The Y12 History and Geography students participated in an initial exploration of themes around place during the STEAM+ event in November, and led the first joint session of Geog On, History Girls and Politics Society, sharing what they’d discussed. We are continuing our joint meetings this term.

I hope that this has given you some insight into an aspect of our current thinking as a department. We would love the wider community to be part of the conversation about our curriculum. Please do get in touch if you would like to via email or Twitter.


Further reading/ideas – along with the material referenced in the post

There are some wonderful walking tours of London which I would thoroughly recommend – some are online at the moment. Try www.open-city.org.uk, https://sixinthecity.co.uk/ and https://www.womenonthewalk.co.uk/women-on-the-march.

Brian Ladd’s ‘The Ghosts of Berlin’ – a wonderful reflection on this most fascinating of cities.

‘The Companion Guide to…’ series – for in-depth itineraries around different cities and countries.

[1] P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019; Black and British: A Forgotten History, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2016

[2] A House Through Time, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2018; D. Olusoga and M. Backe-Hansen, A House Through Time, London, Picador, 2020

[3] With thanks to Holly Beckwith for masterminding and planning this enquiry

[4] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/positive-geographies-covid-19/

What has COVID taught us about our relationships with others?

Mr Keith Cawsey, Head of Religious Studies at Wimbledon High, looks at the impact that COVID has had on our local community and the impact that small acts of kindness have in helping those in need.

Last December, as I was sitting having a cup of tea with a colleague in the Humanities office, our conversation moved on to this ‘mysterious virus’ that was emerging from China. It was spreading through a city called Wuhan and no-one knew what it was or the impact it had on health. It seemed a million miles away, far, far away from SW19. We discussed what would happen if it travelled over to London, but we both agreed that this seemed highly unlikely. We all know what happened next. Case after case, COVID 19 crept closer and closer and took over our lives in a very short space of time and in a way that we would never have imagined.

I believe that COVID has taught us a great deal about ourselves and the community that we live in.

The first thing to happen was sheer panic. I remember visiting my local supermarket at 0700 when it opened. What I saw was nothing short of apocalyptic – people running through the supermarket (and over each other) to grab the last remaining packets of toilet roll. Quite a few had five / ten packets in their trolley and they then selfishly guarded their ‘booty’ as they waited at the checkouts. Others snatched bread, milk, eggs, teabags, meat, butter – whatever they could find and piled their trollies sky high with food so that their families would not be without. What followed in the news? Pictures of bins piled high with out of date food and meat. It seemed that the whole country had become increasingly selfish and the only people who mattered were the people in their families. What had happened to us?

Every religion is unique, but what is particularly interesting is the similarities between them. One thing that stands out as a ‘golden thread’ from all worldviews is charity and caring for others.

Indeed, every religion encourages its followers to care for others, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

  • Hinduism teaches about ‘atman’ – the aspect of God that is in each and every one of us. As equals on this planet, we need to protect every living thing, including animals.
  • The Buddha taught about compassion and how to alleviate suffering, ‘dukkha’.
  • Guru Nanak taught about the importance of providing for others, physically and spiritually.
  • Jesus Christ taught us to ‘love your neighbour’.
  • At the heart of the Jewish faith is ‘Tzedakah’ – a religious duty to provide for anyone in need.
  • One of the Five Pillars of Islam is ‘Zakah’ – 2.5% of all income is shared amongst those in society who need it most.

As we all know, you don’t have to be religious to feel a moral duty to help others. Humanists believe that by helping others, we make society fairer and it is an obligation of us all to provide for those in need.

So while some where piling their trollies sky high with food that would go to waste, what happened next was nothing short of a miracle. As most of us sat safe at home, we started to think about those in our community who carried on regardless: our refuse collectors, our post people, policemen and women, our firefighters, our nurses and doctors. I am sure that no-one will ever forget standing on our doorsteps clapping for our NHS workers who went to work each day putting themselves in the eye of the storm, quietly, diligently and without any fuss.

It became clear to me that in the middle of such a national catastrophe, there were two types of people – those that cared only about themselves and those who put themselves out to help others in whatever way they could – a phone call / a doorstep conversation / a text to people who lived alone. Streets became connected like never before. People were knocking on their neighbours’ doors. Shopping lists were exchanged and those who were shielding were cared for – food deliveries were made. We realised that even though we were scared about the pandemic, it was our moral duty to care for those who needed us.

In Merton, the following charities helped those in need:

  • The Faith in Action Merton Homeless Project
  • Merton Giving Coronavirus Fund
  • Merton Mutual Aid
  • MVSC Covid-19 Community Response Hub
  • Stem4 (Teenage Mental Health Charity)
  • The Dons Local Action Group
  • Wimbledon Food Bank
  • Wimbledon Guild

Some volunteered, others gave tinned food outside supermarkets and others were able to give a financial contribution.

We realised that even though we live our separate lives, the one thing that unites us is our community.

We will be talking about the pandemic for years to come but I hope that the one thing we will reflect on is the power of community. We will never ever again take for granted the tireless work of our NHS staff and our key workers and we should all aim to keep the conversations going with our neighbours.

We are stronger together and we should always aim to be kind. These are the connections and relationships that really matter. Happiness is sometimes a cup of tea, a meal cooked by someone else or a text from someone who you haven’t heard from for a while. These acts of kindness can often cost very little but are invaluable to the recipient and really matter.

Let’s hope that we are turning a corner with COVID and can get back to a ‘normal’ life soon. But when we do, we should always remember the connections we have made and the power that our community has when we truly work together and show kindness and love for one another.

‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’

Matthew 25:35

If you would like to support Wimbledon High’s Christmas 2020 Project please do visit our Christmas Firefly Page where you can find out all about our Access to Learning Project, where we are raising funds to support the purchase of computers for pupils in two of our local primary partner schools, enabling their pupils to access learning when they are at home owing to self-isolation requirements. If every pupil in Wimbledon High raised just £10 each, we would have raised over £10000 in total, enabling the purchase of 40 iPads or laptops!

Learning what to do when you don’t know what to do – tackling unseen texts in English

Miss Lucinda Gilchrist, Head of English, considers the virtues of being ‘stuck’, and how this can help pupils tackle challenging tasks with more confidence.

A growth mindset and being ‘stuck’

Carol Dweck’s influential work on growth mindset has become common parlance across schools now, and we know that helping pupils develop grit, perseverance and resilience is key to supporting them in their learning. A growth mindset is one in which ability is seen as ‘changeable’, and which ‘can be developed through learning’ (Dweck, 2006), rather than innate or fixed. As teachers, we want pupils to be able to reframe their thinking about things they struggle with to develop a growth mindset. We therefore provide scaffolds and supports to ease pupils into the ‘zone of proximal development’ and enable them to see smaller successes on the path to larger ones.

However, small and incremental scaffolds may actually serve to make them more reliant on the support from their teachers than on their own reasoning. An example of this: as part of some of my MA action research, I declared ‘war’ on the PEE/PEA structure, which I knew pupils had become too reliant on and which was making their writing too mechanical, and many of them simply relied on another acronym they had learnt in the past. By easing pupils into a task too gently, we run this risk: ‘if a task does not puzzle us at all, then it is not a problem; it is just an exercise’[1].

We therefore sometimes need to remove even more of the support structures, and defamiliarise pupils even further in order to make them less reliant on the scaffolds we put in place, and make them more aware of the ways in which they can get themselves unstuck, helping them to understand what to do when they don’t know what to do. We can expose them to challenges which they might consider beyond their ‘zone of proximal development’ – be this a new style of Mathematics problem, an unusual context for a theory in the Sciences, or a piece of music unlike anything they’ve heard before.

An example from English – analysing ‘unseen’ texts

Many students of English Literature at KS4 are anxious about the concept of ‘unseen’ – the part of the examination where pupils have to write an essay about a text they have never seen before. It’s particularly challenging with poetry: a poem is often by nature oblique and abstract, resisting an easy answer. While this is what we love about poetry, it can be frustrating for some pupils who want the ‘right’ answer! Pupils who find developing their own interpretations of texts hard sometimes rely on ‘getting’ the notes about texts, and thereby the ‘right’ answer, rather than developing the habits they need to be able to respond to any text, whether one they have encountered before or not. This is understandable: while English teachers will argue that all texts are ‘unseen’ before they are studied, pupils can become used to the scaffold of discussing with pairs or small groups, and the reassurance that, at the end, the teacher would eventually confirm the ‘right’ response by guiding the discussion and asking purposeful questions.

As Angela Duckworth says in Grit, ‘We prefer our excellence fully formed’ (2016). We would prefer to show the world the successful final outcome, rather than the training and experimenting, which means that committing pen to paper and articulating an interpretation of an unseen poem, or even just verbally expressing an idea in class discussion, could make unseen poetry a locus of fear and failure where pupils may feel intimidated by the myth that some people just ‘get it’ and others don’t, rather than seeing it as an enjoyable challenge. When I surveyed my Year 10 class about what they felt the biggest challenges in responding to unseen poetry were, several of their responses focused on the idea of a fixed, or correct interpretation – they were concerned about “analysing the text correctly” or finding “the right message/s of the poem”.  While many of them commented that they liked “reading new poems” and to have a “fresh start and use things we’ve learnt from other poems”, it is interesting that the pressure to ‘get it right’ still prevails.

So I decided to give my pupils a challenge which would deliberately make them feel stuck. As a starter activity just as we started our unseen poetry unit, I gave them a poem which was on a Cambridge University end of year examination in 2014, and which consists only of punctuation[2]:

They were definitely daunted by this – in a survey after the lesson I asked them how they felt when they saw it:

  • I felt a bit out of my depth, I struggled to analyse any of it
  • Quite stuck for words… I wasn’t really sure where to start seeing as we had no context and there were no words so how were you able to deduce anything from it?
  • Freaked out, how was I meant to be able to understand a poem with no words!These phrases echo exactly the sort of being ‘stuck’ feeling I’m sure we’ve all experienced when encountering something unfamiliar. The pupils spent some time on their own examining and annotating the poem, and then in a Teams video call we discussed the kinds of clues they could look for to help them understand the poem – although there weren’t words, they gradually began to use the information they did have, and came up with some insightful ideas, utilising the ideas about the structure and clues from the punctuation marks to try and gain some meaning from the poem. Here are some of the ideas from the Meeting Chat:

They were beginning to notice some really interesting ideas: the open-ended nature of the poem because of the unfinished last section, the implications of the punctuation marks which were there, and the fact that the lines were bracketed, suggesting some sort of devaluing of whatever words might have been inside them. I then revealed the title of the poem: ‘Tipp-Ex Sonata’, and explained that the poet, Koos Kombuis, was a South African performer and writer. With additional context, and using another pupil’s observation about apartheid, they then made some even more impressive deductions:

They had got very close to what Koos Kombuis had said about the poem himself: that it’s a protest against censorship of anti-apartheid voices in South Africa. So far, so good: the pupils had proved that they could reframe their thinking and use different clues to help them analyse the poem.

I then showed the pupils a poem in German:

This, naturally presented pupils with a different problem. However, they could identify rhyme and internal rhymes, alliteration and sound iconicity, and when they heard the poem aloud they could hear the regular, almost monotonous iambic pentameter. They identified that the first and last words of the poem were the same (although one is a pronoun and the other is a verb, they were using the right sort of reasoning!), and made an interesting point about the poem having a cyclical structure as a result. We spoke about how these gave the impression of something enclosed or making repeated movements – and of course, they were actually very close! This poem, ‘Der Panther’ by Rainer Maria Rilke[3], is about a panther, trapped in a cage and moving around in tiny circles as his mind calcifies. Without realising it, and without knowing any of the words, the pupils managed to understand this poem at a surprisingly deep level.

I then asked the pupils their feelings about unseen poetry, having attempted these two poems which would have been certainly at best uncomfortable, and at worst enough to make them feel ‘stuck’:

  • I like analysing unconventional poems, because you can interpret it on a much broader range, rather than analysing the meaning of words and literary devices.
  • less confused and a bit more confident in my capability to analysis texts
  • it made me more confident in understanding different ways to analyse and use other methods to deduce a message from a poem
  • Slightly reassured that annotations aren’t all there is to a poem and you can find other key elements elsewhere.
  • After these activities, I feel like I have a better approach to unseen poetry, and am able to discover the writer’s meaning without context or the internet.
  • now I understand that there is more than just the words on the page that can be understood.
  • it makes it a lot clearer because I now know there are other ways to look at a poem, for example after looking at “der panther” it made me realise I could’ve looked at the rhyming structure or words that rhyme in order to get a sense of the poem.These pupils’ responses suggest that putting them out of their comfort zone and possibly dangerously close to their ‘panic zone’[4], actually made them understand that there were more tools available to them than the most obvious ones. (It is particularly gratifying to see that at least one has learnt they don’t need to consult Google!) Not only is unseen poetry now less daunting, because they had successfully engaged with something even more unfamiliar, but they had also deepened their understanding of a greater range of devices which poets use to create meaning.This is a really useful strategy for helping pupils engage with something which they might feel daunted by, especially when it’s a new topic. Another example is from a Year 13 lesson when we started Chaucer: I was concerned that my class would be daunted by Middle English when they encountered it for the first time, so gave them versions of a text in Old English dating from the 10th and 11th century, and then the same text in Middle English from the 14th century, at which point the pupils began to recognise trends and similarities in the language and structure, eventually identifying it as the Lord’s Prayer, before I provided a more familiar 16th century translation. Making these connections helped pupils feel less alienated by Middle English and more confident to approach Chaucer.

    At WHS, we are fortunate enough to teach thoughtful, perceptive and independent students, and it’s encouraging to see the ways that they engage with really tricky material, and begin to see that, if they can tackle an undergraduate exam text in Year 10, they can tackle any poem! The same strategy could be used in many subjects – a piece of artwork which doesn’t look like what someone might assume to be ‘art’, a piece of music which challenges the expectations of a particular genre, data which might seem to buck a trend in science subjects.  These lessons are memorable as well: one of the girls in my Year 13 class signed up for my elective module on Sociolinguistics on the strength of the introduction to Middle English activity which she had enjoyed several months earlier! By challenging pupils’ expectations and perceptions of their own limitations, they are able to see their subjects in a broader light than the examination syllabi, make connections with wider experiences, and learn a valuable lesson about what to do when they don’t know what to do.


 

References and Further Reading

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, Vermillion.

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books.

https://www.buildinglearningpower.com/2016/04/i-give-up/

https://www.buildinglearningpower.com/2016/05/getting-unstuck/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-27680904

http://www.thempra.org.uk/social-pedagogy/key-concepts-in-social-pedagogy/the-learning-zone-model/

[1] https://www.buildinglearningpower.com/2016/05/getting-unstuck/

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-27680904

[3] https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-panther/

[4] http://www.thempra.org.uk/social-pedagogy/key-concepts-in-social-pedagogy/the-learning-zone-model/

Can the Harkness approach to delivering Maths lead to a deeper understanding?

Mrs Clare Duncan, Director of Studies at WHS @MATHS_WHS, describes the Harkness approach she observed at Wellington College and the impact that this collaborative approach has in the understanding of A Level Maths.

Named after its founder, Edward Harkness, Harkness it is a pedagogical approach that promotes collaborative thinking. Edward Harkness’ view was that learning should not be a solitary activity instead it would benefit from groups of minds joining forces to take on a challenging question or issue. What Harkness wanted was a method of schooling that would train young people not only to confer with one another to solve problems but that would give them the necessary skills for effective discussion. Harkness teaching is a philosophy that began at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the 1930s.

Edward Harkness stated:

“What I have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

This was very much what the classroom looked like when I was lucky enough to observe Maths teaching at Wellington College last term. Their newly refurbished Maths rooms had floor to ceiling whiteboards on all the walls. On entering the classroom, the students were already writing their solutions to problems that were set at preparatory work for the lesson. Whether the solution was correct or not was irrelevant, it was a focal point which allowed students to engage in discussion and offer their own views, problems and suggestions. The discussion was student led with the teacher only interjecting to reinforce a significant Maths principle or concept.  The key learning point is giving the students their own time before the lesson to get to grips with something before listening to the views of others.

The Maths teachers at Wellington College have developed their own sets of worksheets which the students complete prior to the lesson. Unlike conventional schemes of work, the worksheets follow an ‘interleaving’ approach whereby multiple topics are studied at once. Time is set aside at the start of the lesson for students to put their solutions on whiteboards, they then walk around the room comparing their solutions to those of others. Discussion follows in which students would discuss how they got to their answers and why they selected the approach they are trying to use. In convincing others that their method was correct, there was a need for them to justify mathematical concepts in a clear and articulate manner. The students sit at tables in an oval formation, they can see one another and no-one is left out of the discussion. The teacher would develop the idea further by asking questions such as ‘why did this work?’ or ‘where else could this come up?’.

The aim of Harkness teaching is to cultivate independence and allows student individual time to consume a new idea before being expected to understand it in a high-pressured classroom environment. This approach can help students of all abilities. Students who find topics hard have more time than they would have in class to think about and engage with new material and students who can move on and progress are allowed to do so too. In class, the teacher can direct questioning in such a way that all students feel valued and all are progressing towards the end objectives.  It involves interaction throughout the whole class instead of the teacher simply delivering a lecture with students listening. It was clear that the quality of the teachers questioning and ability to lead the discussion was key to the success of the lesson.

Figure 1: WHS pupils in a Maths lesson solving problems using the Harkness approach

This was certainly confirmed by my observations. The level of Maths discussed was impressive, students could not only articulate why a concept worked but suggested how it could be developed further. I was also struck by how students were openly discussing where they went wrong and what they couldn’t understand; a clear case of learning from your mistakes. Whenever possible the teaching was student led. Even when teachers were writing up the ‘exemplar’ solutions, one teacher was saying ‘Talk me through what you want me to do next’. Technology was used to support the learning with it all captured on OneNote for students to refer to later. In one lesson, a student was selected as a scribe for notes. He typed them up directly to OneNote; a great way of the majority focusing on learning yet still having notes as an aide memoir.

Although new to me, at Wimbledon we have been teaching using the Harkness approach to the Sixth Form Further Maths students for the past couple of years. Having used this approach since September it has been a delight to see how much the Year 12 Further Maths pupils have progressed. Being able to their articulate mathematical thinking in a clear and concise way is an invaluable skill and, although hesitant at first, is now demonstrated ably by all the students. The questions posed and the discussions that ensue take the students beyond the confinements of the specifications.

References
https://learning.wellingtoncollege.org.uk/harkness-teaching-and-uk-education/

Forging new relationships; the value of school partnerships – 28/09/18

Mr Richard Bristow, Director of Music here at WHS, looks at school partnerships and how external groups can enhance the academic and co-curricular programme, discussing a new partnership between WHS and the Jigsaw Players.

Partnerships have become increasingly important to schools since the turn of the Millennium, with a significant number of schools in both the State and Independent sectors working together in various ways. Broadly speaking there are two different types of school partnership: formal and informal.

Formal partnerships

A formal partnership will often involve a strategic merger between two or more schools, who might operate under the same trust with a central CEO or Executive Headteacher. The GDST, of which Wimbledon High is proudly a part of, is in this type of partnership with 25 schools (including 2 Academies) across the UK working closely together to provide the very best education for girls. In the State sector, this might involve the merger of an Academy Trust with several different schools working under the same central leadership team; a local example would be the Harris Federation, where 47 different academies – Primary and Secondary – operate within the same charitable trust.

The GDST Network in numbers

Informal partnerships

The informal partnership, however, involves smaller links between schools that retain their autonomy and own decision-making at a strategic level. This could be between two similar schools – for example the OWLS project between Oxford High and Wimbledon High (OWLS standing for Oxford and Wimbledon Leading Scholarship). This is where two schools work closely together to craft a vision to enhance an aspect of their shared goals, sharing resources, good practice and enabling the pupils and staff to develop their skills.[1]

These informal partnerships also exist between Independent and State Schools, as detailed below.

Teach Together

In late 2014, the Department of Education granted a significant amount of money to various different partnerships across the UK, focusing specifically on the primary curriculum. Various different projects occurred throughout the country, from developing coding skills to organising MFL challenge days. Wimbledon High was involved in this project, forming a Teach Together partnership with St Boniface RC Primary School to engage pupils with the science curriculum through storytelling and narrative. This partnership continues to this day with weekly links between the schools with our Enrichment programme.

This partnership has significant benefit to both schools, and this is essential for the partnership to work effectively. Both schools need to put in and get something out of the partnership to avoid it from lacking equality. In this case, WHS girls from Year 11-13 consolidate their scientific knowledge and understanding by teaching scientific concepts in a new way to Key Stage 2 pupils. This not only helps the pupils they are teaching, but develops the older pupils’ ability to communicate with others, encouraging them to look outwards, to support others and be ready to shape the society in which they live. Thus partnership work also meets one of Wimbledon High’s key aims. By ensuring both sides of the arrangement are getting something they require out of the partnership, it is far more likely to succeed. If it was a one-sided agreement, where only one side was gaining from the arrangement, the chances of success would rapidly diminish.

When asked the question ‘Have you seen notable progress?’ the feedback is overwhelmingly positive from both sides, including

  • From WHS Staff: “Yes, in interest & excitement in science. Pupils have produced projects which reflect the time they have spent to continue on these themes & also class room displays linked to our visits.”
  • From WHS Pupils: “I get to see the delight of the pupils in learning new things… developing my confidence and resilience” and “[I have more] confidence in my abilities as I am able to fully teach new concepts to children in maths. [I have] an insight into how far I have come with maths as I reflect “
  • From St Boniface Pupils: “The lesson I enjoyed the most was when we went to Wimbledon High School and learned about Light. I have enjoyed going outside to try new experiments”

SHINE

WHS also hosts the nationally-recognised SHINE programme. This is an education charity seeking to turn potential into success, and at WHS this is presented as ‘Serious Fun on Saturdays’, with 24 Year 4 and 5 primary pupils coming to WHS to learn a range of topics based around the idea of ‘Reaching for the Stars’. Some of the activities include making frisbees in DT, learning to bake, understanding more about astrology in Geography and learning how to perform as an ensemble in Music. Each pupil is given a WHS mentor from Year 12, allowing these pupils to develop their mentoring skills.

External agencies

These links between schools – where skills and resources are shared to develop both sides of the partnership – are of vital importance. However, schools are also increasingly offering new partnerships using external agencies and providers which are open to the whole local community.

A new partnership from September 2018 is the partnership between Wimbledon High School Music Department and the Jigsaw Players. The Jigsaw Players are a Not-for-Profit concert series based in Wimbledon, performing world-class chamber music and jazz. They run educational projects for local children, sponsor young up-and-coming jazz and classical ensembles, and heavily subsidise all their concert ticket prices, to help ensure music is accessible to all in Merton.[2]

WHS and the Jigsaw Players

This accessibility is increasing further with this new partnership with WHS. The Jigsaw Players will host four different events throughout the academic year 2018-19 focusing on composition skills and female composers via workshops and concerts. These are completely free to attend and are open to all.

The workshops will allow pupils from year 9-13 from WHS and local schools to understand more about how to write for chamber forces – specifically string quartet – enabling a higher quality of composition work required for GCSE and A Level Music courses. With numbers of pupils studying the subject across the country in sharp decline[3], schools are either struggling to offer Music as an academic subject or have small numbers doing so outside of the timetable. As the numbers are small, funding can be hard to secure as the impact lacks large-scale focus. Against this backdrop, these partnerships are of even more importance as they offer a chance for all schools – state and independent – to engage with curriculum enrichment at zero cost.

Composition is frequently the area of compulsory study at GCSE and A Level which is the most complex to teach and learn and is the area where examiner marks are frequently debated owing to the more ‘subjective’ nature of composition. This will not change as long as composition is a compulsory part of GCSE and A Level Music, but what we can do as a school is to create a time and space for teachers, pupils and professional musicians to come together to discuss the challenges and work together on finding potential solutions. This collaboration gives confidence and allows for networking – something vital for a subject like Music which are often staffed by only one teacher for the entire school.

Free tickets to the workshops can be booked below:

Workshop 1 https://www.trybooking.com/uk/book/event?eid=4118& 3rd October 4:15-6:15pm M11

Workshop 2 https://www.trybooking.com/uk/book/event?eid=4121& 14th February 4:15-6:15pm M11

The concerts are also open to all, focusing on the chamber music of female composers. This clearly links the chance to hear professional musicians with the overall ethos of girls’-first education, championing music which often struggles to find a voice in the canon of Western Classical Music. This type of cultural enrichment is universal and has significant benefits to overall academic progress[4].

Free tickets to the concert can be booked below:

Concert 1 https://www.trybooking.com/uk/book/event?eid=4120& 3rd December 7pm Senior Hall

Concert 2 https://www.trybooking.co.uk/4122 7th May 7pm Senior Hall

Summary

The most effective partnerships are ones characterised by a shared vision and passion between the schools and agencies agreeing to work together. Without this shared goal, partnerships become forced and subsequently lack effectiveness, reducing impact. Honesty, openness and clear communication are central to ensuring success for all stakeholders.

The new partnership with the Jigsaw Players is an exciting opportunity to work with local professional musicians and other GCSE and A Level pupils and staff, allowing new networking opportunities on a staff and pupil level and encouraging all-important discussions about Music as an academic subject. Whether you would like to attend as an active participant in the workshops or simply as a member of the audience listening to the music by composers past and present, you are warmly invited to become part of our shared passion for all things musical.

[1] See OWLS Quarterly here http://www.wimbledonhigh.gdst.net/userfiles/wimbledonhighmvc/Documents/Sixth%20Form/OWLS/OWLS%20Quarterly-First%20Edition%2C%20February%202018.pdf

[2] http://www.jigsawplayers.co.uk/about-us/

[3] https://www.economist.com/britain/2018/03/01/the-quiet-decline-of-music-in-british-schools

[4] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180326140244.htm

 

Critical Thinking: “the important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

Richard Gale, teacher of Biology at WHS, looks at the value of critical thinking and how we can use this to help make logical and well-structured arguments.

At some point we all accept a fact or an opinion without challenging it, especially if we deem the person telling us the fact or opinion to be in a position of authority.

Challenging or questioning these people can seem daunting and rude, or at worst we could appear ignorant or stupid. However, if we never challenged or questioned ideas or perceived facts then the world would still be considered to be flat, and we would not have the theories of relativity or evolution.

This is what Einstein is getting at, that all ideas and preconceived facts should be questioned otherwise society will stagnate and no longer advance in any field of study. This process of constantly asking questions and challenging ideas is known as critical thinking.

It is said that someone who is a critical thinker will identify, analyse, evaluate and solve problems systematically rather than by intuition or instinct; almost a list of higher order thinking skills from Bloom’s taxonomy. The reason for placing critical thinking as a key higher order skill is because, as Paul and Elder (2007) noted “much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced.  Yet the quality of our life and that of which we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought.”

In essence, critical thinking requires you to use your ability to reason. It is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information by asking questions to understand the links that exist between different topics. It requires learners to weigh up and determine the importance and relevance of evidence and arguments, identifying arguments that are weak and those that are stronger; to build and appraise their own arguments, identify inconsistences and errors in arguments and reasoning, doing all of this in a systemic and consistent way. Then they should reflect on the justification of their own assumptions, beliefs and values. As Aristotle put it “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not. In principle anyone stating a fact or an opinion, and I am definitely including myself here as a teacher, should be able to reason why they hold that fact or opinion when asked questions and should be able to convince a class or an individual that those ideas have merit. Equally, as I know my pupils would attest too, pupils should be able to reason why they hold their opinions or ideas when questioned. Whilst this may seem daunting and at times a bit cruel, being able to think critically has become a very important skill with the onset of the new A levels.

In Biology, under the reformed linear A level, there has been in increase in the percent of marks awarded for higher order thinking skills, termed A02 and A03. A02 is to ‘apply knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, processes, techniques and procedures’ whereas A03 is ‘analyse, interpret and evaluate scientific information, ideas and evidence, including in relation to issues.’ This is weighted between 40-45% of marks for A02 and 25-30% for A03 skills of the overall percentage across the three papers. The pupils taking the exams are expected to critically interpret data and theories, as well as analysing and interpreting the information they have learnt in completely novel situations. The following quote from Carl Segan is now more significant as knowing facts is no longer enough for pupils to succeed: “knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used.”

Thankfully, we can develop and train ourselves – and others – to be critical thinkers. There are a plethora of guides and talks on how to we can develop our skills as critical thinkers, and choosing which one is most useful is tricky and to an extent futile as they all repeat the same basic principles but with different language and animations. I have tried to summarise these as follows:

  1. Always ask questions of the fact or information provided and keep going until you are satisfied that the idea has been explained fully.
  2. Evaluate the evidence given to support the idea or fact; often miss-conceptions are based on poor data or interpretations. What is the motive of the source of the information, is there bias present? Do your research and find the arguments for and against, which is stronger and why?
  3. Finally, do not assume you are right, remember we ourselves have bias and we should challenge our own assumptions. What is my truth? What are the truths of others?

We can practise these skills when we are in any lesson or lecture, as well as when we are reading, to help develop a deeper understanding of a text. Evaluating an argument requires us to think if the argument is supported by enough strong evidence.

Critical thinking skills can be practised at home and in everyday life by asking people to provide a reason for a statement. This can be done as they make it or by playing games, such as you have to swap three items you current have for three things you want, and then rationalising each choice. You can even engage in a bit of family desert island discs, taking it in turn to practise your Socratitic questioning (treat each answer with a follow up question).

There are a few pitfalls to consider when engaging with critical thinking; the first of these is ignorant certainty. This is the belief that there are definite correct answers to all questions. Remember that all current ideas and facts our just our best interpretation of the best information or data we currently have to hand and all of them are subject to re-evaluation and questioning. The next one is more relevant to critical thinking and is naïve relativism – the belief that all arguments are equal. While we should consider all arguments we cannot forget that some arguments are stronger than others and some are indeed wrong. Even Isaac Newton, genius that he was, believed that alchemy was a legitimate pursuit.

Critical thinking is not easy; you have to be prepared to let go of your own beliefs and accept new information. Doing so is uncomfortable, as we base ourselves on our beliefs but ultimately it is interesting and rewarding. As you explore your own beliefs and those of others through questioning, evaluating, researching and reviewing, know that this is enriching your ability to form arguments and enhancing your opinions and thoughts. You do not know what you will discover and where your adventure will take you, but it will take you nearer to the truth, whatever that might be. Whilst on your journey of lifelong learning remember to “think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too” (Voltaire).

Follow @STEAM_WHS and @Biology_WHS on Twitter.

Should standardised exams be exchanged for another form of assessment?

wimbledon logo

Jasmine (Year 11) explores the merits and weaknesses of exams as the formal assessment of intelligence, discussing whether an alternative should be introduced that suits all students.

Exams – the bane of existence for some but an excellent opportunity to excel for others. Thought to have been founded in China, with the use of the standardised “imperial exam” in 605 AD, they are the education system’s way of assessing the mental ability and knowledge of students whilst also creating a practical method of comparison to others in the country. They are therefore an important factor and indicator for employers. But does this strict, tight method really work for assessing intelligence or is it just a memory game that is only achievable for a select few?

I asked 80 students in a survey if they think that exams should be exchanged for another form of assessment and the results concluded that 78% agree that they should. However, when asked about their reasoning, it was mostly due to stereotypical dislike for the stressful period. Some who agreed with the statement also mentioned the unrealistic exam conditions that would not occur in daily life. An example was set forth that during a language oral exam a great amount of pressure is put on the students causing them to become nervous and not perform to their best ability. However, in a real-life conversational situation they would not have to recite pre-prepared answers and the pressure would be taken off so the conversation would flow more naturally. This shows that although someone may have real fluency and talent for the language, their expertise will not be notified and rewarded accordingly

Among many students, examinations are accused of being memory tests that only suit a certain learning style; and the slow abolishment of coursework at GCSE level is contributing to this. This could be shown by the fact that many people in the country have learning difficulties such as dyslexia. These students may be particularly bright and diligent workers however, their brains do not function in the way exams rely on them to. Nonetheless, if they are put in front of a practical task that they have learned to do through experience, they are deemed to be far more knowledgeable and perceptive. Studies show that by learning something consistently for a long period of time it stays in our memory but though it is important to ingrain essential facts into our brains, especially at GCSE level, GCSEs are mostly comprised of learning facts over a period of around 2-3 years and then a final exam at the end; which does not particularly show consistent learning and is more just an overflow of information.

Stress levels caused by the lead-up, doing, and waiting period for results that subsequently follows are also a major factor in the argument that traditional standardised tests should be augmented. According to the NSPCC, from 2015-2016 there was a 21% increase in the likelihood of counselling sessions being for 15-18 year olds affected by exam stress many of whom would be doing GCSEs and A Levels. Some say that the stress these tests cause is necessary for success and mimics the stresses of the real world; but how essential are some of these exams like non-calculator Maths papers when nowadays most people of have calculators on their phones? Exams are also said to create healthy competition that prepares people for the struggles and competitive nature of the modern working world and also motivates students, but can’t this be done with another form of assessment that is more suited to the individual student?

However, the use of different approaches to examination may, in fact, lead to the risk of the test being corrupted. This would mean that grading would be mainly subjective and there would be more scope for unfair advantage for some rather than others. The restrictive nature of our exams today with a set time, set paper and set rules does ensure that fairness is a priority but is the actual exam really the most equal way to test so many different students?

Standardised exams are not the best way of determining the knowledge and intelligence of students around the world. This is due to the stress and pressure they cause, the fact that they are only appropriate for certain learning styles and their ill comparison to real life events in the working world. Changing the form of these assessments may, however, cause grades to be unreliable. My suggestion would be smaller and more practical examinations throughout the course that all contribute to the final grade as this puts less pressure on the students and helps those who rely on different learning strategies to excel and demonstrate their full potential.

The creative-academic problem: why we should value the creative curriculum.

Richard Bristow, Director of Music at WHS, looks at recent developments in the creative curriculum.

News report:

‘Creative industries worth almost £10 million an hour to economy’

Dept. of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, January 2016

 

‘Creative industries grow twice as fast as UK economy in 2015-16, making up 5.3% of the economy’

Economic Estimates for 2016 Report

 

‘The government is aiming for 90% of Year 10 pupils to be studying the EBacc…by 2025’

Telegraph April 2018

 

 ‘Arts education should be the entitlement of every child’

Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, April 2018

 

 

‘Music could “face extinction” in secondary schools in England, researchers have warned’

BBC, March 2017

 

“A combination of cuts to school budgets and the consequential loss of specialist teachers has created a skills loss”

Prof Colin Lawson, Director of RCM, March 2018

 

‘How to improve the school results: not extra maths but music, and loads of it’

Guardian, October 2017

 

‘Axe looms for county music service: 7000 school instrumental lessons impacted’

Sussex Express, April 2018

 

The creative-academic problem:

The news reports above pose a dilemma. On one hand, Creative Industries in the UK have had a celebrated few years, adding significant value to the UK economy; on the other, cuts to creative (and specifically Music) education in secondary schools in England paint a bleak picture of an emerging skills gap, threatening this very success.

A recent BBC survey with data collected from over 1200 schools – some 40% of all secondary schools in England – revealed a damming 90% of schools have made cuts to staffing, resourcing or facilities to at least one creative arts subject over the last year. Music, Drama, Art and Design and Technology all find themselves squeezed because of a growing need to teach ‘academic’ subjects – a key feature of the new English Baccalaureate (or EBacc for short), which has become a compulsory part of state education in England. This division of academic and creative is a central problem in education. After all, we want creative solutions to scientific problems, and an academic approach to art allows for increased understanding. Yes, the Theory of Relativity is complex, but so is Schenkerian musical analysis. Why do we have to choose? Why can we not value both?

90% of schools have made cuts to the creative arts over the last year

BBC Survey

The EBacc

Introduced from 2010, the EBacc seeks to counter the fall in numbers of pupils studying foreign languages and sciences (see here) by measuring pupil progress in English, maths, the sciences, a language and either history or geography.

EBacc Subjects:
  • English Literature
  • English Language
  • Maths
  • Combined or Triple Science
  • History or Geography
  • A Language – ancient or modern

The Government originally set a target of 90% of Year 10 pupils studying the EBacc to be achieved by 2025. This however has recently been reduced to 75% in the latest Conservative manifesto – not to allow for a broadening of the EBacc subjects, but because there are not enough Modern Foreign Language teachers to allow the original target to be met. The cuts to language teaching are a little more established than the more recent cuts to creative subjects, showing the ‘boom and bust’ approach to education in the UK in the 21st Century (see here for more information on MFL provision).

 

However, despite the significant press coverage of schools closing their music departments (see here) and some schools even charging pupils to study Music at GCSE (see here) the data seems to show a mismatch. A New Schools Network report (which can be viewed here) analysing data for all state school GCSE entries between 2011/12 and 2015/16 actually shows a rise in the number of pupils sitting at least one creative subject at GCSE over the period and confirms that pupils who achieve the very best EBacc grades are likely to have also achieved well in a creative arts subject. However, it also shows other issues:

  • A reduction in the funding in the creative arts in secondary schools, suggesting state schools have ‘misunderstood’ the requirements of the EBacc to prioritise named subjects at the expense of non-named subjects
  • The impact of this funding reduction has not yet impacted achievement, but it may well do so in the future
  • That the Government can be more enthusiastic about the value of the creative arts
  • That the biggest decline in the take up of creative subjects was in the Independent Sector, who are not required to follow the EBacc, recording a 12.9% fall in take up of at least one creative arts subject at GCSE from 2011/12 to 2015/16
  • That the independent sector has seen a 30% fall in total GCSE and IGCSE entries over the 2011/12 to 2015/16 period

These points add to the confusion. If the picture is as positive as this report suggests, why are we seeing reports suggesting the ‘extinction’ of subjects like Music in state schools? If the picture is one where the evidence shows the EBacc has not declined the provision of arts education, why are Music departments and Music hubs closing? How can pupils access an arts curriculum if the department is not physically there?

Perhaps the biggest problem with the report is that it does not give data for individual subjects. It might show a rise for the pupils studying the creative arts, but it does not show a rise in all creative subjects. So whilst the numbers studying Art or Design and Technology (part of the STEAM initiative) might have risen sharply, this might be at the expense of Music or Drama, who might have seen a strong decline in education provision. This data is needed to truly understand the impact of the EBacc on individual creative subjects.

Partnerships

The NSN Arts Report also calls upon Art Providers to be more active in helping to engage pupils in the creative arts (see Kendall et al, The Longer-Term Impact of Creative Partnerships on the Attainment of Young People). This might be via art organisations setting up free schools, or more likely to encourage art organisations to engage with a cultural education programme with school pupils.

One such example is the Philharmonia Orchestra who have recently completed their Universe of Sound and 360 Experience Project. This exciting project uses virtual reality to film the Philharmonia Orchestra performing Holst’s The Planets allowing people to experience and learn more about the symphony orchestra. They have also commissioned new music by Joby Talbot to give a contemporary interpretation to writing music to represent time and space. I have been lucky enough to do some work on the education resources for this programme over the Easter break, and it is hoped that this experience can offer pupils, parents and teachers a way into linking Music to other STEAM subjects, rising cultural engagement and musical understanding. If you would like to learn more about the project, please visit here for more information.

Final thoughts

If we are to view subjects by their perceived academic worth, then it can be useful to view how the subject has been taught through history. Whilst many would view Music as now being a creative (and not academic subject), it is important to remember that Music as an academic and theoretical subject was one of the Ancient Greek seven liberal arts and a part of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) which was taught after the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric). Rather than being marginalised as a non-academic subject, we should relish the fact that Music can and has informed scientific understanding throughout history. Practical study of Music is obviously a useful skill, but it is the academic and theoretical knowledge that comes from advanced study of the subject that can really inspire the very best musicians. Perhaps we should redefine STEAM to STEAMM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Maths and Music.

Or maybe we should lose the hierarchy altogether; perhaps, instead of putting subjects against each other in some fruitless competition, we should value passion, enjoyment and the love of learning, seeing the subjects as having equal worth. As Ian McEwan states:

“Science, the humanities and the arts are all forms of investigation,

driven by curiosity and delight in discovery.

The child who flourishes in one should flourish in the others.

The best, the liveliest education, would nourish all three.”

Richard Bristow, 21st April 2018

Follow @Music_WHS on Twitter

Why being bad at Maths just doesn’t add up

By Helena Rees, Head of Maths.

Many still see people who are good at maths as slightly weird, geeky, uncool. Why is this? Why should we study maths?

A couple of years ago Professor Brian Cox hosted ‘A Night with the Stars’ on the BBC. From the lecture theatre of the Royal Institution, he undertook to explain among other things how diamonds are made up of nothingness and how things can be in an infinite number of places at once. He took the audience, made up of famous faces, celebrities and scientists, through some of the most challenging concepts in physics, using maths and science experiments as he went along. It was a truly fascinating programme and if nothing else demonstrated the power of numbers and the speed with which they can make a grown man cry. Jonathan Ross (43 mins approx) was invited to assist Brian Cox in a maths calculation using standard form. The look of sheer panic on Ross’s face, followed by him saying, “This is the worst thing that’s happened to me as an adult” and “I’m sweating”, just about sums up many people’s attitude towards maths.

Mrs Duncan spoke to the whole school this week and used this example. Imagine going out for dinner with six friends and the bill comes. When the time comes to split the bill between seven, the bill is shuffled to the maths teacher or accountant with a slightly shame-faced look saying, “I am rubbish at maths” or “I couldn’t do maths at school”. Imagine, however, that same group of people sitting down to order and someone asking for the menu to be read out because they can’t read it. Few will admit that they can’t read as the stigma of this would be hugely embarrassing. Yet no such reservations exist for maths with individuals almost boasting about their lack of maths ability. Why is this?

Many still see people who are good at maths as slightly weird, geeky, uncool. A PhD in Maths or Physics at the end of a name tends to conjure up images of social awkwardness — people more to be pitied. On the whole surveys of attitudes over the past 50 years have shown that the cultural stereotype surrounding ‘scientist and mathematician’ has been largely consistent — and negative. However, things are changing, in November 2012, President Obama held a news conference to announce a new national science fair. “Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House, we’re going to lead by example,” he said. “We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.” The idea that scientists, mathematicians and engineers could attain iconic status is exciting.

The popularity of television shows such as ‘Think of a Number, ‘Countdown’ and more recently the use of numbers in ‘Numb3rs’, and ‘How Do They Do That?’ have boosted the public’s perception of Maths. CSI has done more for boosting number of students of forensic science than any careers fair. The Telegraph recently reported that students who had a Maths A Level earned on average £10,000 more than a student without. Perhaps statistics like these would encourage more students to take the subject seriously. A report by think-tank Reform estimates that the cost to the UK economy between 1990 and 2008 of not producing enough home-grown mathematicians was £9 billion, such is the value of maths expertise to business.

Marcus du Sautoy, second holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford says he can’t understand the pride there is in being bad at Maths. “It’s bizarre why people are prepared to admit that because it’s an admission that you can’t think logically. Maths is more than just arithmetic. I would rather do business with someone who admits they’re good at Maths. You don’t get that in the Far East. In Korea or China they’re really proud of being good at Maths because they know the future of their economies depend on it, their finances depend on it. Mobile phones, the internet, Playstations and Google all depend on Maths,” he says. “If people realised that, then they wouldn’t poke fun at it so easily. In today’s information age, Mathematics is needed more than it ever was before – we need Maths. Problem solving skills are highly prized by employers today. There is an increasing need for Maths and the first step needed is a change in our attitudes and beliefs about Maths.”

It is true that many of us will not do another quadratic equation or use trigonometry in our daily lives. However, Mathematics is more than just the sum of subject knowledge. The training to become a scientist or an engineer comes with a long list of transferable skills that are of enormous value in the ‘outside world’. Communication skills, analytical skills, independence, problem-solving skills, learning ability — these are all valuable and at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. But scientists, mathematicians and engineers tend to discount these assets because they are basic requirements of their profession. They tend to think of themselves as subject-matter experts rather than as adaptable problem solvers.

We have all heard of Pythagoras and his famous theorem. The theorem states that the sum of the squares on the two shorter sides of a right angle triangle sum to the square on the hypotenuse, more commonly shortened to a2 + b2 = c2. In 1637 Pierre de Fermat postulated that no three positive integers a, b, and c satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than 2. For example to a3 + b3 = c3 After his death, his Fermat’s son found a note in a book that claimed Fermat had a proof that was too large to fit in the margin. It was among the most notable theorems in the history of mathematics and prior to its proof, it was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most difficult mathematical problem”.
(https://plus.maths.org/content/fermats-last-theorem-and-andrew-wiles ) However, in 1994 Andrew Wiles, published a proof after 358 years of effort by Mathematicians. The proof was described as a ‘stunning advance’ in the citation for his Abel Prize award in 2016. You can watch an interview with Andrew Wiles by Hannah Fry where he was interviewed this week in the London Public Lecture Series organised by Oxford University.

In a recent article Wiles commented “What you have to handle when you start doing Mathematics as an older child or as an adult is accepting the state of being stuck. People don’t get used to that. They find it very stressful.” He used another word, too: “afraid”. Even people who are very good at Mathematics sometimes find this hard to get used to. They feel they’re failing. “But being stuck, isn’t failure. It’s part of the process. It’s not something to be frightened of. Then you have to stop. Let your mind relax a bit…. Your subconscious is making connections. And you start again—the next afternoon, the next day, the next week.”

Patience, perseverance, acceptance—this is what defines a Mathematician.

Hilary Mantel, novelist and writer of Wolf Hall writes “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient” Perhaps Mathematicians and novelists are so different after all?

When it comes to Mathematics people tend to believe that this is something you’re born with, and either you have it or you don’t and this is the common refrain at parents evenings. But that’s not really the experience of Mathematicians. We all find it difficult. It’s not that we’re any different from someone who struggles with Mathematics problems in junior school…. We’re just prepared to handle that struggle on a much larger scale. We’ve built up resistance to those setbacks. A common comment on parents evening is to delegate the Maths homework to dad as that is ‘his thing’. What message does this give our girls of today? That this is a subject that boys are good at.

Luckily for us here at Wimbledon High School we have a strong culture of doing well in Maths. We have excellent results at iGCSE and there are over 50 girls this year in year 12 alone studying some form of post 16 Mathematics qualification with a view to a STEM career. The new Steam room is an exciting initiative to be part of. A recent article in the National Centre for the Excellence in Teaching of Mathematics journal, asked how can we get more girls to study A Level Maths. The answer at WHS? Keep doing what we are doing well and continue to be excited and positive about the beauty and the magic of numbers.