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!

The positive geographies of Covid-19

Dr. Stephanie Harel, Acting Head of Geography, explores the positive geographies of our current global pandemic, including a stronger local sense of place and a greater environmental consciousness.

As an educator, I concern myself every day with demonstrating how and why “Geography matters”. Central to our discipline, and indeed my own academic interests, is the often-contested concept of ‘place’. At its heart, lies the notion of a meaningful segment of geographical space, although what is also important to understand, is that places are dynamic and multifaceted[1]. Recently, I introduced our Year 12 students to these ideas, as part of the Changing Spaces, Making Places unit in our OCR specification. Over the past three weeks, we have explored the difference between ‘place’ and ‘space’, the characteristics that constitute a place profile and how perception of place can vary depending on factors such as age, gender and personal experience. Lively class debates have discussed how people can see, experience and understand place in different ways and, perhaps most importantly, how our relationships with places can change over time.

I love teaching this unit, because it aligns with my own research interests and allows me to delve into what was the focus of my doctoral thesis. My PhD explored the complexities of people’s emotional response to disasters. Acknowledging that people negotiate their emotions in different ways, my thesis demonstrated the complex ways that emotions influence how the disaster displaced relate to ‘home’ in the aftermath of disaster. As a practitioner, I see much value in using this research to develop students’ understanding of how the concept of place works in practice. During Guided Home Learning, for example, I relished the opportunity to teach a two-week segment as part of the Geography elective for Years 11-13, which explored the ‘Emotional Geographies of Home’. In our sessions, I shared stories from real people who had lost their homes as a result of the 2011 flood event in Brisbane, Australia, and 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. As I explained to my students, the aim of my PhD research was to extend geographic knowledge on the emotional dynamics of natural disasters. However, I also aimed to contribute to debates within our discipline about how places can be disrupted and altered in a myriad of ways and as a consequence of both physical and human processes. Again, these sessions promoted incredibly rich discussions. The level of independent thought and active enquiry shown in students’ post-course reflections showed deep engagement with course content, on both an academic and a personal level; as a teacher, it was richly rewarding to read these reflections.

While my doctoral research was carried out within the context of natural disasters, I believe there is huge potential to explore these ideas further, within our current global climate. Media outlets across the country are presenting the endless disruption caused to places as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. This is important, of course; the economic and social consequences of COVID-19 will undoubtedly be severe and long lasting. Still, I would like to intervene amidst what sometimes feels like a barrage of negativity. I want to suggest that there are many positive ways in which the pandemic has altered places around the world, at a variety of different scales. The following, therefore, is what I deem to be ‘The positive geographies of COVID-19’:

A stronger ‘sense of place’

When I was researching in Brisbane and Christchurch, and indeed for my Masters research in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina[2], one of the positive outcomes of the experience of a natural disaster was the way in which communities came together in the face of crisis. My research exemplified how emotions play a key role in the construction of place and many of my interview narratives demonstrated the value of social capital in the aftermath of catastrophe. Narratives of those who were displaced and subsequently returned to post-earthquake Christchurch, for example, discussed the importance of community support networks and the strengthening of their local neighbourhoods in the aftermath of the earthquake. From what I’ve seen in 2020, the same concepts ring true during a global pandemic.

Above: Hurricane Katrina Flooding, Pixabay

In Geography, a ‘sense of place’ refers to a feeling of belonging; a strong identity that is deeply felt by inhabitants and visitors. It is often a term used by humanistic geographers to describe our attachment to specific locations[3]. I would argue that with communities coming together to clap for NHS carers and networks of volunteers supporting vulnerable members of their communities, lockdown deeply enhanced our local sense of place. It also, I believe, caused us all to redefine our relationship with ‘home’, purely because we spent such an unusually large amount of time there. Socially distanced neighbourhood street parties and road WhatsApp groups where neighbours could check in on each other became the new norm. The 75th anniversary of VE day saw us all aptly enjoying the sound of ‘We will meet again’, celebrating with our local communities, from the comfort of our own driveways. In a personal capacity, lockdown resulted in a significant increase in the amount of time I was able to spend with my husband and young daughter; time I will cherish. I was able to witness my daughter’s first wobbly steps, knowing this was only possible because I was working from home. I then watched her grow confidence as she navigated the potholes along our road, cheered on (from a distance) by our kind neighbours.

Although I have long explored the concept of ‘place’ and acknowledged the way in which places are constructed by humans and human interactions, COVID-19 illuminated this reality in a way I never expected. Places truly are defined by the people within them; it is the experiences we have, and the relationships and memories we create that make geographical locations meaningful. The stronger sense of local place I feel towards my local community is evidence of this, but I am also struck by heightened sense of place created here at school as a result of the pandemic. Despite lockdown, our community remained united – Together Apart – and I think this unwavering sense of place experienced at Wimbledon High School during a time of national crisis is worthy of celebration.

Environmental consciousness

As well as teaching the core Human Geography Unit in Year 12, I also teach our Year 13 Geographers the core Physical systems unit, ‘Earth’s Life Support Systems’. Content within ELSS incorporates an understanding of our global water and carbon cycles, the consequences of human activity on these natural systems and the importance of management strategies which protect our vulnerable planet. Carbon emissions remain one of the world’s most significant environmental concerns. Emerging and developing countries, such as China and India have long been at the top of the contributor list for global greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, however, the pandemic has shut down industrial activity and temporarily slashed air pollution levels all around the world.

Above: Pollution levels in China in 2019, left, and 2020. Photograph: Guardian Visuals / ESA satellite data

I find myself wondering: Inadvertently, is this the largest scale pollution experiment the world has ever seen? Could this be the outcome of moving towards a low-carbon, green, economy in the future? And it is not just our dominant developing countries that have seen the positive effects of lower carbon emissions as a result of COVID-induced lockdowns. Italy’s usually heavily congested roads substantially reduced levels of traffic, resulting in drastically lower nitrogen oxide levels in the country[4]. The positive environmental consequences of this are unprecedented and offer an opportunity to think more critically about the implications of our everyday practices.

In addition to the global decline in factory pollution, it is also worthy to acknowledge the positive implications associated with a reduction in air travel as a result of national lockdowns around world. Today’s society is a society (normally) on the move. With the development of mass automobility and aeromobility, the scale of our travel has grown immense, and social life and social organisation are increasingly dependent on mobility[5]. COVID-19, however, has restricted our international mobility in a way that feels almost unnaturally authoritarian. While of course I acknowledge the challenges associated with being bound within our national territories, I’d also like to highlight the positives. The outcome of an inability to travel abroad is an increase in local and national ‘staycations’. I admit that I am someone who has lived in Australia and the USA, but never been to the Peak District. I’ve travelled to Singapore but haven’t explored many of the islands from my Scottish homeland. What COVID-19 has allowed for is an appreciation of the natural beauty that surrounds us not only in locally in London and the South-East, but all over the British Isles. As a nation, our inability to holiday overseas has increased an awareness of our local geographies, prompting an enjoyment of these local landscapes and the wonders that surround us, and sparking a renewed environmental awareness that aims to preserve them.

So then, it is pertinent to remember that 2020 is not a year to write off; perhaps it is, instead, a year full of opportunities. A time to connect and reconnect. A chance to acknowledge the beauty of our local surroundings and reconsider the impact our patterns of consumption so that we can rectify our environmental impact. As a geographer, I have long been fascinated by the relationship between people and places. I hope this post has demonstrated how geographers can offer some very useful ideas for making sense of our current situation; what has happened, what we might be feeling, and how we might go forward – stronger than before.


References:

[1] Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: A short introduction. Blackwell Publishing

[2] Morrice, S. (2012) Heartache and Hurricane Katrina: Recognising the influence of emotion in post-disaster return decisions. Area 45(1), 1-7.

[3] Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: Sage.

[4] Watts, J. & Kommenda, N. (2020) Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution. Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/23/coronavirus-pandemic-leading-to-huge-drop-in-air-pollution

[5] Gustafan, P. (2014) Place attachment in an age of mobility. In Manzo and Devine-Wright Place (eds.) attachement: Advances in Theory, Methods and Application. Routledge, 2014.

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/

The proof behind one of the most famous theorems in mathematics

Vishaali, Year 10, looks behind the proof of one of the most famous mathematical theorems – that of Pythagoras’ theorem.

 

What is the difference between a theorem and a theory?

A theorem is a mathematical statement that has been proven on the basis of previously established statements. For example, Pythagoras’ theorem uses previously established statements such as all the sides of a square are equal, or that all angles in a square are 90°. The proof of a theorem is often interpreted as justification of the statement that the theorem makes.

On the other hand, a theory is more of an abstract, generalised way of thinking and is not based on absolute facts. Examples of theories include the theory of relativity, theory of evolution and the quantum theory. Take the theory of evolution; this is about the process by which organisms change over time as a result of heritable behavioural or physical traits. This is based on undeniable true facts, but more from experience and from an abstract way of thinking.

It is also important not to confuse mathematical theorems with scientific laws as they are scientific statements based on repeated experiments or observations.

The proof behind Pythagoras’ theorem

You have probably all heard of Pythagoras’ theorem, one of the simplest theorems there is in mathematics, that is relatively easy to remember. Given that it’s so easy to remember and to learn, wouldn’t it be an added bonus to know exactly how this theorem came to be?

The theorem, a²+b²=c², relates the sides of any right-angled triangle enabling you to find the lengths of any side, given you have the lengths of the other two.

This whole theorem is based on a triangle like this:

These four right-angled triangles are exactly the same just rotated slightly differently to create this shape:

Two shapes have been made by putting these triangles in this order. A big square on the outside, and another slightly smaller square in the middle. As all these triangles are the exact same you can label them A, B and C.

You can tell from the labels the triangles have been given, that the bigger square would have the sides (a+b), and the smaller triangle in the middle will have sides of c. Therefore we know the area of the smaller square is c² :

Using the exact same four triangles, we can rotate and translate them to create a slightly different shape:

Now two more squares have been added to this shape. We can call them  a² and b².

Thinking back to the shape we made before, we can also see that the length of this shape is also (a+b). As we know we used the same four right-angled triangles for the shape before and now, we can infer that the two squares  a² and b² are exactly the same as the square from the first shape, c². Hence we get Pythagoras’ theorem, a²+b²=c²:


References:

https://www.livescience.com/474-controversy-evolution-works.html
https://www.askdifference.com/theorem-vs-theory/

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

 

The value of spontaneous speech

Claire Baty, Head of French at Wimbledon High School, considers the importance of spontaneous speech in the Modern Foreign Language classroom.

Like many a Modern Foreign Language teacher at this time of year, I have spent the last few weeks    conducting oral exams. I like this opportunity to work with my students individually. I see oral exams as the chance to shine, to show off all the hard-work done during the year. It’s the only exam that the student is in control of, that they can steer down their path of choice. So why then, do the students have such opposing views? They hate oral exams. Clearly nerves are natural, let’s face it, no one relishes being put on the spot and being recorded at the same time. But the problem goes deeper than simply being nervous about an exam. There is often a big discrepancy between the quality of written work compared to the quality of spoken work. A student who can write at length using a range of subordinate clauses and move comfortably between time frames, reverts to simplistic sentences or one-word utterances when asked to speak spontaneously. Many a time has a parent expressed frustration at their daughter’s inability or unwillingness to speak in the target language when on holiday, despite their excellent grades in MFL at school.

Why is any of this important, you might ask. If the students are getting good results, then does it matter? I would argue that yes, it matters a lot. As a French teacher it is my job to enable my students to communicate, and true communication is not about writing an essay, learning it off by heart and reciting it under exam conditions. True communication is the desire to share experiences and ideas with others. In the words of Nelson Mandela “If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”.  Only by speaking to someone in their own language can we truly begin to understand them, their identity and culture.

 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”.

 

Moreover, speaking another language enables you to experience different attitudes to life, relationships, food and environment. Adam Jacot de Boinod makes this point succinctly in the books “The meaning of Tingo” and “Toujours Tingo”. He states that words change the way we see the world. Take for example that in Hawaiian kapau’u means ‘to drive fish into the waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch’. In Inuit, pukajaw means ‘firm snow that is easy to cut and provides warm shelter’. Jacot de Boinod realised that sometimes a dictionary can tell you more about a culture than a guidebook. (The meaning of Tingo, Adam Jacot de Boinod, p.ix, Penguin Books 2005). My students know this; they want to travel the world and be international citizens. They can see the importance of linguistic knowledge and cultural awareness in the workplace, and it is our job to guide them towards a more spontaneous approach to communication.

Whilst teenage anxiety plays a part in making students reluctant to speak in the target language, it is by no means the only cause. Confident, able students resist our advice to move away from pre-learnt speeches. There is a notable disjuncture between the language needed for a speaking exam in Key Stage 4 and the phrases that would be helpful as a tourist in the country. Whilst the new GCSE specifications go some way towards addressing this, the lack of requirement for transactional language means our students can converse at length about their holiday plans or environmental problems in their local area, but struggle if someone stops them in the street and asks for the time, they panic if the waiter in the café doesn’t stick to his side of the role play when ordering a chocolat chaud! Infrequent lessons in an artificial classroom environment further compound this difficulty, not at all helped by the fact that when the students do muster up the courage to speak in French, the French have a tendency to reply in English.

Guy Claxton, an academic, a cognitive scientist and leading educationalist specialising in well-founded ways of enhancing intelligence, spoke to us recently about The Learning Power Approach and the importance of teaching learners to teach themselves. He made a number of points that resonated with me in terms of their pertinence in this discussion. Firstly, that it is our job as language teachers to equip the girls with the traits and skills to cope outside of the classroom, to be independent enough to flourish. Secondly, if we want students to be able to do something, then we have to coach it, build it up gradually by providing them with structured opportunities to speak spontaneously:

  • Key phrases on the wall and learning mats to help build complexity into spontaneity
  • The use of listening exercises to model the language we want the students to use rather than just to assess their understanding of a topic
  • Effective vocabulary Focussing on verbs to enable responses in complete sentences.
  • Scaffolding is necessary in Y7 and 8 to build confidence.
  • Target language use needs to be built into classroom routines and bravery must be rewarded.
  • Support should be gradually withdrawn in Y9 so that by Y11 spontaneity is more likely.

These practices are essential to good language teaching, they are the bones of our lesson plans. But whilst they might encourage pupils to talk, do they encourage spontaneous speech? Gianfranco Conti, PhD and co-author of ‘The Language Teacher toolkit’, winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award and founder of www.language-gym.com would argue that true spontaneous speech is without prompts. “[speaking tips] refer but to the very embryonal stage of spontaneous talk, what […] I refer to as the ‘imitative’ stage. However, in order to bring our learners from the ability to ‘parrot’ phrases on the wall or on writing mats to what applied linguists call ‘autonomous speaking competence’ it takes way more”. We need to expose our students to native speakers, whether that be through trips, language assistants, other bilingual students or simply authentic audio and visual material such as radio, music and films. We need to encourage peer to peer interaction and exercises that focus on the communication of a message and less on the accuracy. Cloze exercises, speed dating conversations and dictagloss should be prioritised.

Here at WHS, Modern Foreign Languages are hugely popular. Students enjoy the variety of an MFL lesson and the satisfaction gained from learning something brand new. French, German and Spanish continue to be popular choices at GCSE and A Level. Speaking exams will always be nerve-wracking but I would like my students to feel proud when they can confidently develop their answers. I would like them to experience a sense of joy at being completely understood when speaking French in France. I want to enable them to speak with the same enthusiasm and conviction with which they express ideas in their mother-tongue. Above all I would like my pupils to want to communicate at every given opportunity. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire, non?

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.