Teaching and learning Gem #47 – Action Research: Pedagogies to Account for Racial Diversity in English

This is the second in of our special Friday Gems focussed on Action Research. Today’s is about Lucia’s brilliant Action Research over the last two terms, which links closely to our EDI priority.

Lucia was interested in exploring Year 9 students’ perceptions of the everyday language of the diverse speaker, and how we can change our teaching to redress any value judgements students might make. The expectations of exam boards for students to use ‘standard English’ means that judgements might unconsciously be perpetuated about the way individuals speak. By using pedagogies to allow students to be able to analyse AAV (African American Vernacular), she wanted to see whether our students were able to move beyond seeing ‘non-standard’ English as ‘slang’ or as ‘less rich’. In short, Lucia’s Action Research is all about anti-racist pedagogies.

To read more about her findings, please see attached Lucia’s brilliant write-up of her Action Research below:


Friday Gem #45 – Conversation With Yourself (mirror function on Flipgrid)

This idea comes from Suzanne in the French department, who used her lesson observation with Claire to try out a new digital technique. In the lesson, she helped students to review all the vocabulary they had learnt so far. She then built their confidence in using the mirror function in Flipgrid to record a conversation using the vocabulary for homework, with the student both asking and answering their own questions.

  • Video instructions Suzanne made for her class of how to use the mirror function in Flipgrid

The application in MFL is apparent. However, the idea of verbally asking and answering your own questions could be used in lots of other subjects, from debating different ideas, to conducting a Q&A with yourself, to putting right misperceptions about something. The metacognition built into doing this sort of thing is brilliant and the mirror function in Flipgrid could be a fun way of encouraging students to develop this sort of thought process. How could your students use it in your subject?

Year 13 German Lesson

Benefits

  • The students were creative in using the mirror function, using costumes, backgrounds etc.
  • It allowed students to verbalise ideas at home (really important for MFL, but important for all subjects).
  • It built confidence in a fun way: students were practising vocab and accuracy of pronunciation in a low stakes manner.
  • If used for students to debate with themselves, or to conduct a Q&A with themselves, then the metacognitive element is really beneficial.

Neurodiversity considerations for this activity from Isabelle and Catherine:

  • Be prepared to offer an alternative to students with social anxiety and autism.
  • Be prepared that for some students sharing publicly is very difficult.

The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide

Holly Beckwith, Head of Year 7 and Head of Politics, explores Siena Castellon’s book The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide. Holly says that it helped her, as a ‘neurotypical’ teacher, consider how a ‘neurodiverse’ student might view the world.

It was her chapter on mental health which I found most useful, particularly in its explanation of alexithymia, which is very common in autistic people.

The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic was written by Siena Castellon when she was 16. She wrote the ‘guide’ so autistic teenage girls could read advice from another autistic teenage girl, rather than an autistic or neurotypical adult, by which she found most of the literature had been written. While teachers are not its target readership, I would argue it is an especially valuable read for us in seeking to better understand how we can support our neurodiverse students in addition to the pedagogical texts and research into cognitive science. It allowed me, as a neurotypical teacher, a view into the ways in which some of our neurodiverse students may see and experience the world differently as well as similarly to me. Reading her guide cultivated empathy that is more difficult to attain in other literature on neurodiversity.

She says of herself:

‘In many ways, I’m a typical teenage girl. I love music, binge-watching TV shows on Netflix, makeup, chocolate and my awesome dog, Rico. Yet there is one important thing about me that makes me very different from most teenage girls. I’m autistic. I’m also dyslexic and dyspraxic, and I have ADHD.’

Siena is very aware of her own individuality as well as some of the commonality she may have with others with autism and so while it is very much her own experience which is drawn upon, some typicality can be inferred. It is both these things that help us as teachers build empathy and understanding and thus enable us to alter our approach or consider how we can empower our neurodiverse students to identify strategies to cope with the school environment.

But we must be mindful that this is one person’s experience that is mostly drawn upon and at times this comes through very strongly – particularly in the passage on toxic teachers, which addresses some sad and what would have been for her, traumatic, experiences in her school years.

Siena dedicates chapters to topics such as dating, surviving school, fashion, making friends and gender identity. It was her chapter on mental health which I found most useful, particularly in its explanation of alexithymia, which is very common in autistic people and I characterised by three main difficulties:

  • Difficulties in identifying what you’re feeling
  • Difficulties in describing your feelings to others
  • Difficulties in distinguishing between your feelings and the physical sensations related to an emotional response.

Siena shares stories of misunderstandings that have arisen since her emotions rarely match her facial expressions and the time delay she can have when it comes to identifying and processing emotions and I will share one here:

‘When our social battery is fully charged, we’re at our social best. As the social battery starts to drain, our social skills deteriorate until we reach the limit of our ability to socially interact. Social interaction comes at a price. It leaves us physically and emotionally spent. The only way for us to recover is for us to have time to ourselves so that can recuperate and recharge. […] When I’m at school, I try to ration my social battery so that it lasts the entire day. [..] When my social battery drains and my anxiety reaches critical levels, my ability to function drastically deteriorates. I become a lot clumsier, less tolerant of being touched, more rigid in my thinking, less able to cope with any changes in my schedule or routine and more sensitive to lights, noise and smells.’

Siena then offers a series of strategies she has used and encourages readers to identify their own in an empowering and encouraging way. This is Siena’s achievement and purpose – to address the challenges she faces candidly while also role modelling agency and ambition.

21st Century Design for Life

Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, considers the impact of this year’s CPD on 21st Century Learning Design, evaluates the Social Robots project against the rubric and reflects on the value of this approach for teachers and students.

During the last term of this unprecedented school year, groups of teachers have been lifting their gaze beyond the challenge of the pandemic to reflect on the way we teach and learn. Since April, colleagues from the Junior and Senior Schools have been considering 21st Century Learning Design.(1) An academic research programme funded by Microsoft in 2010, the Innovative Teaching & Learning Research Project described and defined this pedagogical approach. Collaborative research was carried out across ten countries, with the Institute of Education in London as one of the partners. The outcome formed the basis of a framework for evaluating and designing schemes of work, and subsequently a programme of study for teachers.(2)


The six components of 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD)

21CLD is a lens through which we can view the planning and delivery of the curriculum – as broadly as across a whole topic, or down to the level of an activity within an individual lesson. The rubric-based approach across the six topic areas prompts teachers to think about how to effectively build skills which are not necessarily well understood or embedded by other pedagogical approaches. Whilst we may not accept the popular discourse about the necessity of ‘21st century skills’, the framework addresses the need for students to beopen to new ideas and voices, direct and be accountable for their own work, and conduct effective and meaningful collaboration: all skills which are valuable in a swiftly changing world.

A collaborative professional development opportunity

Teachers were assigned a module of the course to work through independently, and then came together in study groups to discuss the concepts and teach each other the module they had studied. This has proved an exciting way to learn about 21CLD and apply it to our own classroom practice. Mixed group discussions outside the silos of departments and key stages revealed how this pedagogy is applicable across different subject areas and age groups, and identified where there are connections with existing approaches, such as Kagan structures or Harkness method for communication and cooperation, and our STEAM+ interdisciplinary work.

The discursive approach allowed teachers to be candid about their experience. Delving into the detail of the rubrics brought self-reflection: one teacher saying “I thought we’d be brilliant at collaboration, but actually we often co-work rather than collaborate.” Teachers evaluated existing activities against the rubrics and considered how they could adjust their lesson plans and projects to create deeper engagement and more agency for their pupils, and substantive and meaningful work as a result. New plans for a science project about pollution and the revision of a history research topic are among the outcomes of this period of study. Junior School teachers investigated how different levels of the rubric might appropriate at different Key Stages: they plan to create examples of suitable activities to inform the planning of lessons which will develop skills over the pupil’s time in the infant and junior years.

The process was not uncritical, with much debate in both parts of the school around the knowledge construction module: balancing innovative approaches with the needs of the examination system and our own belief in the value of scholarship made for interesting conversations.

A real-life example of real-world problem-solving

As I studied the course myself and designed the programme for teachers, I evaluated one of my own projects.

The Social Robots Club, which the Head of Computer Science and I began two years ago, is an excellent example of real-world problem solving and collaboration within the 21CLD framework, which has arisen organically through the interests of a group of Year 10 students. You can read about their work in this week’s WimTeach[link], where the girls have written about their project and experiences.

The purpose of the club was to experiment with our Miro-E robots (3), in order to plan their inclusion in the curriculum. It is the students who have driven the project forward. From our early brainstorming about uses for the robots, they chose a goal, defined their project and set to work. How does this activity measure up as an example of 21st century learning?

Collaboration

Students work as a team, assigning roles for each task, and making their own decisions about the process and product. The work is interdependent – for instance, dividing up the writing of code into segments which will be later combined.

Skilled communication

Students have produced presentations for Junior school staff, a lesson plan for Year 5 pupils, surveys and a leaflet for parents and an assembly for the school community. They carried out academic research including writing to the authors of papers with further queries.

Knowledge construction

We had never used such sophisticated robotics at school previously, but the group are already competent coders, so are applying their knowledge. Research for the project has covered psychology, pedagogy and computer science – certainly interdisciplinary.

Self-regulation

This group of students have worked on this project for a year and are clear about their aims, and what success will look like. They plan their own work – in fact, Mr Richardson and I joke that we are superfluous! – but we are there, of course, to offer feedback and guidance to help the team make progress when the project stalls.

Real-world problem-solving and innovation

The project is problem solving on a macro and micro level. The real-world problem is about improving reading progress for primary age children, but every week is micro problem-solving as we navigate a new and unfamiliar coding interface and sophisticated but temperamental robots. The project will have a real-world implementation when the robots are used by Year 1 next year.

Use of ICT for Learning

Technology is crucial to the project, obviously, but most significantly, we will create a product for authentic users – a robot creature who will respond with encouragement to a child reading – a great deal of code will lie behind those simulated behaviours!

The benefits of 21st Century Learning Design

On a practical level, 21CLD offers teachers tools for creating learning activities which promote skills that we would all agree are essential for study, work and life – to communicate clearly, collaborate well and solve problems. When combined with our emphasis on scholarship and our interdisciplinary STEAM+ philosophy, I find three further important outcomes:

Building knowledge and appreciating complexity

In a fast-paced world, the experience of going deeply into a topic or project for a sustained period will develop sound knowledge and critical thinking skills. Grappling with complexity brings an appreciation that not all problems are solved or ideas best expressed with a sound-bite response. All fields of study are rich with nuance once we go beyond the superficial.

Identifying unknowns, living with uncertainty and resilience

The deeper students go into complexity, detail and a wealth of knowledge, the more aware they become of what is unknown, either to themselves or to others. In a year which has been filled with uncertainty, an awareness that what we understand of the world is not fixed or fully known is, at first, unsettling. Sitting with that uncertainty – whether academic or otherwise – can build resilience. As the students write in WimLearn this week, persevering through difficulty brings its own joys.

Curiosity and exploration

Having appreciated complexity and experienced uncertainty, where do we go next? We have the answer enshrined within our school aims: Nurturing curiosity, scholarship and a sense of wonder. To achieve sufficient mastery of an area of study that we can begin to push at the boundaries is where exploration and innovation happens; or, as we wrote at the start of this year (4), in the spaces and connections between traditional subject areas with our STEAM+ philosophy. Depth of study, knowledge and skill is a firm foundation for exploration.

In conclusion, the exploration of this course on 21st century learning design has been incredibly valuable. At a time when we have been caught in the weeds of logistics and change, the programme of study and our collaborative approach has opened up big ideas and new conversations between teachers, which we will continue to explore next year. This feels like the start of a new conversation about the way we use technology in the classroom.


References

(1) 21st Century Learning Design, Microsoft Educator Center, https://education.microsoft.com/en-us/learningPath/e9a3beec

(2) You can read the original research papers and other references here, within the Microsoft CPD course. https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=91F4E618548FC604%21300&authkey=%21AOE-MnST_ZCMc1Q&page=View&wd=target%28Embedding%2021CLD%20in%20practice.one%7C2989f197-22e1-42a9-b2d5-2a71628825c1%2F21CLD%20Readings%7Ce58d3c47-38fa-47da-9077-18571f525580%2F%29

(3) Miro-E are programmable social robots designed for us in schools. http://consequentialrobotics.com/miroe

(4) Bristow & Pett, STEAM+, http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/steam-2/, September 2020

Je suis tout ouïe – being all ears: the importance of listening when learning to speak another language

Suzanne Stone, French teacher at WHS, considers the importance of listening in the language classroom and asks how we can make pupils more confident, and ultimately better, listeners.

Who hasn’t experienced first-hand, in the good old days of international travel, the frustration of not being able to understand the language we can hear around us; where seemingly basic, everyday interactions can sound like a fast stream of unintelligible phrases that can leave us feeling all at sea?

Within a school setting, the classroom can evoke similar frustrations as students try to make sense of the language spoken by their teacher or heard through audio files. Consequently, groans, sighs and puzzled brows are not an uncommon sight for MFL teachers at the front of the room, nor are comments such as ‘Why is listening so hard?’ particularly when progressing from KS3 to GCSE, and then on through to A Level.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that several studies have documented that students can approach listening tasks with a sense of anxiety (Graham 2017). Indeed for some, it can be the skill that is enjoyed the least and feared the most. Some students see listening tasks as a test or measure against which they assess their understanding and ability. A more challenging exercise can dent existing confidence, or ‘self-efficacy’ (Graham 2007), in other words the feeling that you are good at something, so undermining motivation and possibly the desire to continue with that subject later on.

So, why can listening in the classroom conjure up anxieties such as this?

‘Our brain needs to perform in real time in order to extract meaning from any utterance we hear’ (Conti and Smith 2019)

It goes without saying that listening to an audio file on OneNote is not exactly the same as listening to a real-life person who is looking at you, whose interactions, intonations and gestures can help you decipher mood and meaning. When listening, we are making many demands on our memory. We have to master holding on to all the incoming information at varying speeds whilst being able to ‘sift’ this information as we hear it, breaking it down into its component parts of words, phrases and grammar. All these processes present a challenge, particularly as any new information can often erase the previous one, especially in time-pressurised situations (Field 2008).

So, why does it matter?

‘Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak’

Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher

Surely listening is just one of many skills involved in learning a language? I would argue that it is the most important skill, as it is the precursor to speaking and inextricably linked to responding. How can you ever hope to master speaking if you are a poor listener?

Listening is not the ‘passive’ skill it was once said to be. We acquire our first language through listening to several thousand hours of being spoken to before we begin to speak intelligibly, so our brains are hard-wired to work out meaning from what we hear around us (Graham et al 2010). Julian Walker (2021), a linguistic historian, describes the ‘Tommy French’ that arose from the interactions of English-speaking troops with civilians during WW1. Their experience in France during the war led to the special language they invented in order to cope with their situation. ‘San fairy ann’, ‘toot sweet’ are anglicized French phrases (Ça ne fait rien, tout de suite) that came into use on the Western Front during the First World War as British troops struggled to communicate in French. Fortunately for us, we have a greater understanding in education of the processes of how we listen and have moved away from this rather limiting, sink or swim approach.

How can we help students become better listeners?

In learning a language, we can develop our students’ ability to listen. We can reduce anxiety and build confidence by incorporating strategies in our MFL teaching which hone the skills needed to process and respond to information we hear. It is not only the exercises we use in lessons such as dictation, dictagloss, gap-fills and games that make listening fun, but it is also the work on phonics, reading aloud and oral practice in our classroom interactions which, in turn, enable students to become better listeners.

Dictationsimprove our ability to respond to what we hear, so helping us become more authentic speakers of the language too.

How can students improve their MFL listening skills?

  • Try different approaches

Some of our Year 11 and Year 12 French students have been trying out different listening strategies to gain an understanding of different ways to cope with harder texts.

Y12 Review of preferred listening strategies       
Y11 Post Spring Listening Assessment Review

Sharing our thinking and working through strategies together in this way will hopefully promote independence and confidence and reduce anxiety in the process.

  • Build up your vocabulary!

Having a broad vocabulary is key to learning and understanding another language. Try making Quizlet flashcards and use the audio file to practise pronunciation. Alternatively, listen to a podcast such as Coffee break French, or a foreign language film or series with the subtitles in French or in English – Lupin on Netflix is a popular choice here!

Final thoughts

Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.

Plutarch, Greek biographer

So, how can we become better listeners? As discussed in a previous blog by our Director of Sport, in mastering a skill, repetition is crucial and listening is no different. In short, you get better at what you practise and by improving our listening, we can hope to become better speakers too.

Sources and further reading:

Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith, Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen, 2019

Steve Smith – A process approach to listening – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQhh6b6BTJI&list=PL_FfkTb7PcMG7V_KE-N9r9NMmB1-GrF0c

John Field, Listening in the Language Classroom, 2009

Julian Walker, Tommy French: How British First World War Soldiers Turned French into Slang, 2021

Graham S, Learner strategies and self-efficacy: making the connection, 2007

Graham S, Research into practice: listening strategies in an instructed classroom setting, 2017

Graham S, Santos, D, & Vanderplank, R, Strategy clusters and sources of knowledge in French L2 listening comprehension, 2010

Coffee Break French https://coffeebreaklanguages.com/category/coffee-break-french/

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;

Friday Gem #32 – a method for ‘thinking out loud’

Spring Focus: Metacognition

Teaching and learning Gem #32 – a OneNote method for students to ‘think out loud’ and make their thought processes transparent

After so many brilliant Friday Gems from colleagues, this Friday Gem comes from me! It is an idea I tried for the first time with my Year 12s last half term. I wanted each student to ‘talk’ me through their thought processes at different points of their essay. The idea was for students to make clear to themselves (and me) the decisions they had made before I took it in for marking. In engaging with this sort of metacognitive activity, students were having to evaluate their methods and purposely think about their thinking.

  1. At the top of a OneNote page, I put a series of metacognition prompts about the essay writing process. I asked students to copy and paste them to the top of their essays:

2. Students chose three of these prompts and drag and dropped them to relevant parts of their essay. They wrote a response about their thought processes at that point. Here is a brilliant example from one of my Year 12s. As you can see, she is really mature and considered in her reflections:

 

 

3. When I marked the work, their comments formed the basis for my own feedback, allowing me to have a ‘dialogue’ with the student

 

This is effective because:

  • Students are being self-reflective and critical of their own thought processes, promoting self-awareness, self-questioning and self-monitoring.
  • It demystifies the essay writing process, making it clear to students how they are thinking at different stages in the process.  
  • It encourages students to take ownership of their own feedback, having to comment on their own work before I mark it.
  • It makes my feedback more focussed and purposeful.

Friday Gem #31 – metacognition, confidence and the pandemic

This Friday Gem comes from Richard Finch, who thinks about the academic and pastoral benefits to metacognition as part of the EPQ process. Metacognition gives students the flexibility to take control. This boosts confidence and reduces anxiety, vital in the time of a pandemic.

Metacognition is vital to the EPQ

The independent approach students must take to complete the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) is daunting for most. Students are guided by a supervisor who is there to act as a sounding board for ideas but the student must ultimately decide for themselves how to research, compile and produce a 5000 word report on an area of personal interest. Self-reflective thinking must be documented at these key milestones and forms an important part of the assessment. Developing new skills is also a key element of the qualification and again, girls are actively encouraged to reflect and document which are appropriate for their particular project.

 

Metacognitive Planning Tools are empowering and are a confidence boost

One student reflects here on a new tool she was encouraged to use to organise her time. “Another hurdle for me was planning out when to do my research, having heard that Gantt-chart was an indispensable tool and thinking therefore that I absolutely had to use it. I tried to use it for my initial title with limited success, and then thought I had improved and even mastered it for my second. However, I was eventually forced to admit that Gantt-chart was not for me, and that I was far better off sticking to a simple bullet point list of dates and deadlines. Therefore, I did not acquire the skill of using Gantt-chart, but I did learn that sometimes it is just much more effective to stick to what I know works and have confidence in my own methods, rather than thinking that because a resource worked for someone else it will work for me.” Effective self-reflection is empowering for EPQ students. Everyone learns differently and those, like the student quoted above, that can assess how effective a new method or skill will be for them better able to overcome challenges. The alternative is that students blindly follow a suggested method without questioning or adapting it to what works for them. Achieving more flexible thinking and skill in choosing how to apply the most appropriate method is a real confidence boost for many girls.

 

Metacognition to help face pandemic related challenges.

A student commented in their EPQ that “I have encountered numerous setbacks during my project which mostly related to the COVID-19 pandemic which severely curtailed my access to the hospital. I have learned not to lose heart when setbacks occur and to continually try to find ways around problems in order to complete tasks. I have appreciated that being flexible is critical to this.” She went on to document how she intends to adapt her research to complete the project. Documenting the change of approach reduced anxiety and motivated her to take practical steps to move towards completing her project.

Self-reflection is a skill that is overtly assessed on the EPQ. This motivates students to engage with the way they think about learning and assess their own meta-cognitive development. Documenting self-reflection and incorporating it into the assessment criteria is something that could be beneficial to learning practice at all levels.

Teaching and learning Gem #30: Computer Science Practical Work and Metacognition

Spring Focus: Metacognition – Computer Science Skills

In this gem, I will be looking at the thinking skills that are taught as part of the Computer Science Curriculum and the ways in which they are taught. I hope that by sharing our ideas, we can start to think of problem solving as a set of skills involved across a range of subjects.
Metacognition skills are key to the study of computer programming. When encountering a new task, novice computer programmers are likely to concentrate on the superficial details of the problem, failing to break it down into manageable sub tasks and trying to solve the whole problem in one go. We often see this in our lessons and I’d be really interested to hear if any other colleagues encounter similar issues or use similar skills in their subjects.

Metacognition Skill 1: Decomposition
Decomposition is the process of breaking a large problem down into progressively smaller “chunks”, making it easier to solve. By the time they complete the GCSE course, students should be comfortable with these steps. In order to promote this at GCSE, students develop this skill in three ways:

Computer Science

At the start of the course:

 After introducing the concept of decomposition, students are asked to create an overview of the parts of their favourite board game. This gets them to take an algorithm (set of steps, as defined by the rules) and gets them to think about them in a different way.

Computer Science Further on in their learning, the class will be asked to attempt a decomposition diagram, working collaboratively to spot the key components of the problem. This work is not marked, nor do they have to follow a set format; it simply acts as their plan for the task.
Computer Science

Finally, at the end of a project, the class is given a solution prepared by the teacher. Their task is then to reverse-engineer the decomposition diagram, so that they can follow the thought process used and begin to do it by themselves in the future.

Metacognition Skill 2: Abstraction

Abstraction is the skill of removing unnecessary detail, allowing the programmer to focus on the important parts of the problem. A famous example of this is tube map, where Harry Beck realised that the geographical positions of the tube stations was unimportant; his map focused more on the order of stations and highlighting interchanges, using approximate locations (click here for a geographically accurate tube map and see how much hared it is to follow).

In this activity, students are paired, with one partner blindfolded. The partner who can see is given a photograph (of a bird, for example) and has to get the blindfolded “artist” to recreate the picture as accurately as possible. The results are often comical, occasionally hilarious and always excite some sort of comment. After a couple of iterations, the class is asked to reflect and discuss how they made it easier to describe the image to their partner. Many of them will respond with ideas such as “I told her to draw a circle the size of a 10p” and this can lead us in to the concept.

Metacognition Skill 3: Mental Mapping

In creating larger software projects, it’s important to consider how users will interact with the solution; the user will create a mental map of software, giving them an idea of where they are, where they need to go and the way back to the beginning. The class are asked to close their eyes and count the number of windows in their house (some of the numbers shocked me when I first asked this in a private school). After asking for their responses and writing them on the board, they are asked to forget about the number and to describe the process they went through. Were they inside or outside? Which room did they start in if they were inside? Did they fly around the outside? This allows us to explore the idea that they have a mental model or map of their house in their heads. This can be broadened out into directions to their nearest train station or supermarket. Then we look at the steps involved in performing everyday computer tasks, such as writing a letter in Word. Using these examples, the students then design their solution.

Why these ideas are Useful…

  • By introducing the skill in a non-technical and familiar situation to begin with, we can avoid overwhelming the pupils with new terminology
  • Instead of this being something new that the students feel they have to acquire, we can give them the idea that these are skills that they already possess and with practice can develop
  • It allows them to develop their confidence in the face of unknown problems and to draw out the similarities between tasks
  • Although these are Computer Science examples, they can be applied to other subjects:
    • Planning a project or research by splitting it into easy to achieve tasks
    • Describing concepts to others in a simple and concise way
    • Designing the layout of anything

 

Friday Gem #29 – Revision Planning using Confidence Rating

Spring Focus: Metacognition – students selecting and organising the whole class revision plan

Teaching and learning Gem #29: Planning the Revision Process/Logging Progress

 

In this gem, I will be taking you through the way in which we use the girls’ own confidence ratings to plan the revision and teaching schedule in Computer Science, as well as promoting the idea of tackling your weakest topics first.

 

This Friday Gem was, in part, gifted to me several years ago on a course. The Chief Examiner for Computer Science at the time (pre-Govian A-levels) claimed that it should be possible for a student to fully revise for the A-Level in a single hour, as long as the students prioritised their revision effectively. Although I never did subscribe to that timeframe, I noted that students often simply start at the beginning of the specification and waded their way through to the end, rather than targeting the trickiest topics before fatigue sets in!

  1. First Review

After the Computer Science exam classes have finished the specification (this is usually just after Autumn Half Term), they have a single lesson where they are asked to give their gut reaction to the topics on the syllabus, in order to inform our planning of revision topics going forward.

They are provided with a grid, containing all of the spec points from the syllabus and a booklet full of revision questions which they can use as a stimulus for discussion. Working collaboratively, they discuss the specification points, look at the questions and rate their confidence on each topic (a score out of 5) by completing their column in the table:

Why it’s useful…

Taking these numerical snapshots of the students’ confidence lets the students:

  • Understand their areas of strengths and weakness
  • Discuss the topics and practice exam questions with their peers, to further their understanding
  • Feel more confident about the approaching assessment, as they look at more examination style questions and understand the types of questions and skills required
  • Find reassurance when all of their peers rate a topic with a low score

It also allows us to put the scores in a spreadsheet:

  • We can calculate an average student understanding for each topic
  • Sorting the syllabus from lowest to highest average, we plan our revision lessons to tackle those topics which the students are most concerned about first

 

  • We can also take an average per student and use this to identify anyone who needs a pep talk or who may need extra support:

Towards the End of Revision
The class comes back to the table again and we repeat the process again. Students are able to see their progress, having hopefully driven all of their confidence scores higher, which should help to prove to them that their hard work has paid off.