Does sharing your passion for your subject enhance teaching and learning?

Clare Duncan, Deputy Head Academic, looks at the impact sharing passion for your subject can have on learning outcomes and STEAM.  

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire’ W.B Yeats 

I’m guessing that most, if not every, teacher came into the profession, not because they had a love of assessment and report writing, but because they had a passion for something – whether that be the writing of W.B. Yeats or, in my case, the beauty of the Fibonacci sequence. I find it fascinating that such a simple recurrence sequence, where each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two numbers, is found so often in the natural world. The sunflower seed formation – from the centre outwards, of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… and so on – is one such stunning example.  

As educators, we have the envious position of having a captive audience on whom to unleash our enthusiasms. As teachers we are always reflecting, always thinking of ways not just to impart knowledge but also to spark pupils’ interest in our subject. By demonstrating passion and curiosity ourselves we allow pupils to do the same – surely a worthy aim in itself, particularly if we want them to become lifelong learners. 

Even more than this, students modelling your behaviour can assist them in their next steps. It’s clear that the university applications that achieve the greatest success are those in which students demonstrate their deep enthusiasm for the subject, whether through their personal statement or at interview. In a recent Telegraph article about the application process, Peter Claus, the new access fellow for Oxford, discussed this idea:

‘Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond and are aware of the culture of their subject.’ 

Our own Sixth Form Review reinforces that what teachers say and how they say it is hugely important, particularly in terms of the expertise and interest they themselves demonstrate. One student commented:  ‘(it’s) impressive when teachers know their stuff‘ and described taking the time after such a lesson to ‘let things sink in’.

So my tips for teachers to think about would be to:  

  1. Impart your passion to your students. By showing your excitement you may ignite it in them. 
  2. Find resources that fuel your passion and allow you to show them what excites you about your subject. (For me one such example is the BBC’s More or Less1 where the presenter explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.) 
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of interdisciplinary learning. It is at the heart of our STEAM+ agenda. The best way to help reinforce a student’s passion is to show them that it can be applied to, and enriched by, multiple subjects.  

And why is instilling passion in students important? Here are words of Sara Briggs.  

‘When students are passionately engaged in their learning – when they are mesmerized by their learning environment or activities – there are myriad responses in their brains making connections and building schema that simply would not occur without that passion or emotion.’ 2 

So what will I be adding to my lesson plans this Autumn? The Year 13 Further Maths students will be introduced to the beauty of the catenary curve and how it can be modelled in using hyperbolic functions.

Footnotes

1. BBC More or Less: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd

2. S. Briggs, ’25 ways to institute passion-based learning in the classroom’, 2013. Originally published on opencolleges.edu

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;

Slow Learning

With ‘slowing down’ a key part of our wellbeing strategy of ‘Strong Body, Strong Mind’, our Director of Studies, Suzy Pett, looks at why slowing down is fundamental from an educational perspective, too.

So often, the watch words of classroom teaching are ‘pace’ and ‘rapid progress’. I’m used to scribbling down these words during lesson observations, with a reassuring sense that I’m seeing a good thing going on. And I am. We want lessons to be buzzy, with students energised and on their toes. We want them to make quick gains in their studies. But is it more complex than this?

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that ‘slow and deep’ should be the mantra for great teaching and learning. I’m not suggesting that lessons become sluggish. But, we need to jettison the idea that progress can happen before our very eyes. And, with our young people acclimatised to instant online communication, now more than ever do we need our classrooms – virtual or otherwise – to be havens of slow learning and deep thinking. Not only is this a respite from an increasingly frenetic world, but it is how students develop the neural networks to think in a deeply critical and divergent way.

What I love most in in the classroom is witnessing the unfurling of students’ ideas. This takes time. I’m not looking for instant answers or quick, superficial responses. I cherish the eeking out of a thought from an uncertain learner, or hearing a daring student unpack the bold logic of her response. Unlike social media, the classroom is not awash with snappy soundbites, but with slow, deep questioning and considered voices. As much as pacey Q&A might get the learning off to a roaring start, lessons should also be filled with gaps, pauses and waiting. You wouldn’t rush the punch line of a joke. So, it’s the silence after posing a question that has the impact: it gifts the students the time for deep thinking. In lessons, we don’t rattle along the tracks; we stop, turn around and change direction. We revisit ideas, and circle back on what needs further exploration. This journey might feel slower, but learning isn’t like a train timetable.

But what does cognitive science say about slow learning? Studies show that learning deeply means learning slowly.[1] I’m as guilty as anyone at feeling buoyed by a gleaming set of student essays about the poem I have just taught. But don’t be duped by this fools’ gold. Immediate mastery is an illusion. Quick-gained success only has short term benefits. Instead, learning that lasts is slow in the making. It requires spaced practice, regularly returning to that learning at later intervals. The struggle of recalling half-forgotten ideas from the murky depths of our brains helps them stick in the long-term memory. But this happens over time and there is no shortcut.

Interleaving topics also helps with this slow learning. Rather than ploughing through a block of learning, carefully weaving in different but complimentary topics does wonders. The cognitive dissonance created as students toggle between them increases their conceptual understanding. By learning these topics aside each other, students’ brains are working out the nuances of their similarities and differences. The friction – or ease – with which they make connections allows learners to arrange their thoughts into a more complex and broad network of ideas. It will feel slower and harder, but it will be worth it for the more flexible connections of knowledge in the brain. It is with flexible neural networks that our students can problem solve, be creative, and make cognitive leaps as new ideas come together for a ‘eureka’ moment.

Amidst the complexity of the 21st century, these skills are at a premium. With a surfeit of information bombarding us and our students from digital pop-ups, social media and 24 hour news, the danger is we seek the quick, easy-to-process sources.[2] This is a cognitive and cultural short circuit, with far reaching consequences for the individual’s capacity for critical thinking. With the continual rapid intake of ideas, the fear is a rudderlessness of thought for our young people.[3]

And yet, peek inside our classrooms, and you will see the antidote to this in our deep, slow teaching and learning.


Sources:
[1] David Epstein, Range (London: Macmillan, 2019), p. 97.

[2] Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), p. 12.

[3] Ibid. p. 63.

Friday Gem #27 – start of term reflection on prior learning

Autumn Focus: Metacognition – students driving their own learning through reflection

Teaching and learning Gem #27 – start of term reflection on prior learning

 

This comes from Mary and Yvonne in Chemistry, who used digital RAG forms at the start of this term to help students reflect on their learning. This is such a great method to develop metacognition. Whilst we have done a Friday Gem on RAG forms before, I thought it would be useful to share how colleagues are using them to great effect with the current T&L focus.

 

  • In creating the Microsoft Form, Mary and Yvonne used statements from the specification to break down the topic (great for helping students’ mental schema about the topic)
  • They asked the students to complete the form after a holiday, allowing students to realise what has stuck in the long-term memory, and what has not.
  • This drew the students’ attention to the nature of memory, and the need for regular, spaced practice.
  • In rating their knowledge Red, Amber, Green, students were having to recall ideas and concepts and reflect on their own confidence.
  • As well as being a great metacognitive task for students, it also allowed for Mary and Yvonne to get really quick feedback about the class at a snapshot, but they could also zoom into the detail to see the confidence of individuals.
  • It has helped them plan for revision/interleaving/revisiting areas.

 

What did the students think of this?

“The girls said they found it really useful. They particularly liked it at the end of a topic with the spec statements as it really helped breakdown the content of the units and identify what they felt uncertain about when they had time to think about it. They advised me that they want me to do more and definitely at the end of units.”


Friday Gem #25 – harnessing the self-reflection of Motivational Maps and R&R

Autumn Focus: Metacognition – students driving their own learning through reflection

Teaching and learning Gem #25  – harnessing the self-reflection of Motivational Maps and R&R

This Friday Gem comes from Clare Duncan 

One clear example of student self-reflection is their termly Review and Reflection session, and none more so than this year with our holistic approach. Using the Motivational Maps tool, students completed a series of questions which generated a report detailing their top motivators. They reflected on what these motivators meant to them and how they could harness them to develop strategies for success in every aspect of school life: academics, co-curricular and friendships.  These thoughts were captured during R&R and their report has been transferred to their profile page on Firefly.

So how can we use these in our T&L to encourage students to take control of their learning and reflect on their progress?

Well, each student reflection was captured in a report on Firefly. If there is a student in your class who you feel is not connecting with your subject, why not look at their self-reflection and discuss with them their motivators: together, plan how the student can use those motivators to drive their progress in your subject.

By way of an example:

Take Ceri, her top motivator is a Director: she has a need for power and influence. Here is her reflection:

I am struggling with finding my feet in class and in the Sixth Form. This is particularly true in Politics and English as I feel that the more confident girls always speak over me and when I do say something; they challenge what I’ve said and I am unable to speak up or share my opinions.

Through Ceri articulating this, you and she can discuss and plan an approach to her having a voice. For example, giving her a lead role in an initiative, you will be addressing her motivational need. This is a great way of using a student’s self-refection to help them to flourish in your subject.

George Cook, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott)

George Cook, Head of Hockey at WHS, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott). These books show that it is less about the questions we ask, and more about the environment we create that enables us to ask them. Culture is everything.

Questioning is a hot topic in the world of education. What type of questioning do you use? What type of questioning should you be using?

There is no doubt that questioning allows us, as the teacher, to identify areas of strength and weakness in our classes. It gives opportunity to really challenge the most gifted, stretching and pushing the limits of their understanding. It is a great tool because in the same breath we can use questioning to give great confidence to those who are unsure or perhaps, normally, quieter and more reserved in lessons.

However, according to the two books listed above, the type of question you use and who you ask it to, is irrelevant if the environment we create is not quite right.

The Culture Code examines many high performing groups ranging from high end military task forces and airline pilots, to successful start-up companies as well as big hitters like Google. On the face of it, none of these groups have much in common. Apart from the culture they have developed, built on honest two-way communication and trust.

It was found that regular small snippets of communication within these high functioning groups allowed them to not only know each other better, but made sure they stayed on track throughout the task at hand to complete it in the most accurate and efficient way possible. The opposite of this in a classroom situation would be to wait for over an hour into a lesson before catching a pupil off guard with a challenging question to answer in front of their peers. Small and frequent two-way communication is much more effective.

Radical Candor states that if we are to have open and honest communication in our groups and teams then we must instil two key elements first. Firstly, care personally about all those in your class, and show it! As teachers we do this more often than we might expect and can be as simple as asking a pupil how their weekend was etc. The second element is to challenge directly. Challenge the beliefs of pupils directly, but also actively encourage them to do the same to us as this is more likely to build trusting relationships where more in depth and honest discussions and conversations can be had.

If we can take these lessons and implement them into our classroom and practical teaching, then we are far more likely to have open and lively debate and discussion that includes all members of the group and not just those that feel confident in the subject area. This is why I think the culture we build around questioning is equally important as the type of questions we use.

Mrs Wei Fang reviews Kris Boulton’s blog post: ‘Should we use questions to teach?’

Mrs Wei Fang, teacher of Mandarin at WHS, reflects on her own experience of questioning in the classroom, before reviewing a blog post by Kris Boulton ‘Should we use questions to teach?’

 “…the question is not why questions are better, it is when.”

As a language teacher, I have been thinking a lot about questioning in the classroom, getting students to really think about the grammar and vocabulary they learnt, in order to improve their understanding and memorising. For example, ‘how’ questions are particularly useful in assisting students to remember Chinese characters, or hanzi: ‘How do you know the meaning of this character?’ Students would answer: It means juice 汁  because it has water radical (the components of characters that indicate meaning). I then would retrieve other learning from their long-term memory by asking an elaboration question: ‘Where else can you see this radical?’. Giving students the thinking time, asking them to connect their learning and expecting a better answer are very important strategies of questioning.

However, questions do not always go well. At times I asked a series of questions and felt like my questions were much longer than the students’ answer. They seemed to be confused about why I asked those questions. I then reflected on my lesson and realised that: why didn’t I just explain it?

So, it is time to think about why we ask questions. Kristopher Boulton argues that questions are not necessarily better than explanations, though sometimes he switches to questions when he feels the need to promote understanding. In his blog post ‘Should we use questions to teach? -1&2”, he addresses that the question is not why questions are better, it is when. He concluded that: ‘questions can be very effective tools of teaching, but they must be used with incredible care.’ A very structured grid of various question types concluded by him and another blogger can be found here:

Question Spectrum

The above matrix is made for Maths, but one can be also useful for other subjects. It brought to my attention the pointlessness of allowing students to guess without establishing their prior knowledge. In Mandarin, there is language content that is better to be explicitly taught first, especially the content that doesn’t exist in English, for example: tones, measure words, characters (not randomly drawing it but with certain orders), as well as unique culture conception such as Hukou (a system of household registration used in China), etc. In order to enhance understanding, I once asked year 7 students to analyse the tones, by asking them the differences between Chinese and English sounds. As a result of lacking enough input of Chinese, some students were struggling to tell the differences among the four tones. They told me that the rising and turning tones sound the same. In this case, further questions on this will confuse them. It made all the difference the next time when I made them practice tones for enough time, and then asked them to tell me which tones they have heard and why (verbalizing burgeoning understanding). A key quotation from Boulton that I keep in mind for my subject is ‘never ask pupils questions to which they have not already been told the answer, unless they know enough that answering the question requires them only inching forwards.’


References

Kristopher Boulton

https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/should-we-use-questions-to-teach-part-1/

https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/should-we-use-questions-to-teach-part-2/

https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2017/04/22/never-ask-pupils-a-question-to-which-they-have-not-already-been-told-the-answer/

 

Community: the crux of the post lockdown classroom

Amidst national concerns about students’ academic progress during lockdown, Suzy Pett, Director of Studies at Wimbledon High, thinks about the far more essential point: that the return to the classroom – and the very act of learning itself – is intrinsically about human connection and communion.

As Director of Studies at Wimbledon High School, now more than ever I am thinking about what our classrooms will look and feel like in September. As a teacher of 10 years, I’m familiar with the end-of-summer surge of excitement and apprehension about school return. Despite the nerves, there is something ritualistic and reassuring about it. In the words of Philip Larkin, we can ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’.

But, with Covid-19 having forced us from our physical classrooms for so long, this time it feels different. There is, of course, the fact that classrooms will now look unfamiliar. In a throwback to times gone by, students will all be facing forward, with the teacher pinned to their white board or laptop at the front. However, the changes run deeper. I’ve been thinking through the implications of them on the very way we teach.

Concern about the lack of learning during lockdown is understandably high in the national consciousness. Exasperated parents took to Twitter, wryly pleading for “Alexa [to] please home school my child.” A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that most students did fewer than 3 hours study per day. Educators worked harder than ever to engage and motivate students, with innovative online programs. Fortunately, there were many success stories, and at Wimbledon High our Guided Home Learning allowed students to maintain pace and progress in their education.

However, teachers across the country will be returning acutely aware of the curriculum content they need to cover. They will be detecting where students’ understanding might be shaky from home learning. They will employ their most winning combination of quizzing, questioning and testing to unearth – and then fill – any knowledge or skills gaps. They will be helping students to self-reflect and be ready to proffer feedback. In pursuit of maximum academic progress, classrooms will be aglow with teachers’ voices enthusing, encouraging, cajoling and reassuring their students. There will be – I am certain – no lack of ambition for what this generation of young people will achieve this year.

Though, what is uppermost in my mind as I prepare for school return in September, is the fundamental nature of the classroom as a community. With reports of students feeling increasingly isolated and disconnected in lockdown, it’s even clearer to me that learning is an act that unites. Whilst I am ardent about academic progress, I am far more attuned at the start of this school year to how my methods of teaching can forge those much-needed meaningful, human bonds.

It goes without saying that the soul of the classroom is far more than the acquisition of knowledge. Intrinsic to the very process of learning is human connection and communion. With the flimsy and chimeric relationships on social media, our classroom spaces – and the way we teach – can be a salve for young people needing to feel part of a more stable community. Lesson rules become shared customs. Rigorous class discussion allows every student to have a voice that is heard. Opinions and ideas are shared and probed so that conversation is far more nuanced and rich than social media sound bites. Judging the right challenge and pace of learning creates trust as students rely on each other and their teacher to problem-solve and move forward.

In lessons, we metaphorically go through the woods and come out the other side. Together. Connected. No one is left behind. And, it is teachers’ careful planning and pedagogy that enable this. Online learning went some way to recreate this, but nothing will beat the power of in-person learning to rekindle that sense of togetherness for young people.

Here at Wimbledon High we’ve always believed in the intertwining of pastoral and academic care. They are not separate. As I start this school year and think about my teaching practice for the months ahead, I am convinced of this more than ever.

 

Friday Gem #10 – student collaboration using Miro

Teaching and Learning Gem #10 – student collaboration using Miro


We know how important it is to find ways for students to connect and collaborate during GHL. Clare Roper shared with me some videos of her Year 10s working together in real time using Miro – an online collaborative platform. She put students in groups using Teams channels so that they could speak with each other as they completed the collaborative task online. She could see exactly what was going on, to support and give encouragement live.

  • Fast and furious team competition about pollination

Teams competed to order the stages of the pollination process. This video is so fun…I think Clare has a future as a sports commentator!

  • Multiflow thinking maps about human influences on the environment

Clare was able to watch the different groups of students collaborating on their thinking maps and give immediate feedback. Watch here.

Miro has lots of different ways for students to collaborate. Click here to watch a short promotional video about Miro.

Friday Gem #8 – the power of digital RAG forms

Teaching and Learning Gem #8 – the power of quick questionnaires to get a picture of whole class understanding

This idea comes from Nicola Higgs, who created a digital RAG sheet for students using Microsoft Forms. Students rated their confidence about the topic of climate change (covered during lockdown) by using  ‘red’, ‘amber’ or ‘green’ . This allows students to reflect honestly on their Guided Home Learning AND helps Nicola understand which areas of this topic she needs to revisit in lessons.

Here is a link to what her form looked like.

Below are some of the results, quickly giving Nicola a sense of the whole class picture and what has been understood by students:



Here is the excel spreadsheet generated, allowing Nicola to dig down into the detail of particular students so she can support them/make interventions:

This is effective because:

  • It is quick for students to complete and gives all students the ability to share their feelings.
  • It encourages students to be self-reflective about their learning
  • It gives the teacher direction about where to focus their teaching
  • It allows the teacher to see which students need more support or intervention