19 March 2011

On defensive teaching

The Wolf Report says;
Recommendation 9
Students who are under 19 and do not have GCSE A*-C in English and/or Maths should be required, as part of their programme, to pursue a course which either leads directly to these qualifications, or which provide significant progress towards future GCSE entry and success.
It so happens that earlier this week I observed a class on just such a programme. About a dozen students at a Further Education college, about to try to get their GCSE A-C Maths for their third or fourth time. I gather that when no-one other than their teacher (and possibly a Learning Support Assistant) is present to observe, they are quite lively (largely "off-task", as the current jargon puts it); but in the presence of (three--don't ask) observers they were subdued, compliant and even cowed.  

Some had special needs, including one on the autistic spectrum.

I was there (such is the apostolic succession/endorsement of our quality assurance systems) to observe the directly observing tutor and mentor, rather than the actual teacher... OK:
  • How soul-destroying is it for a learner to go round this track yet again? Some of those with "special needs" (who may excel in other areas) may never get to the finishing line. Is that going to shut them out from all further educational opportunities?
  • The assumption is that better teaching can overcome all obstacles. And "teaching to the test" is the way to do it...
The teacher, currently a student on a qualifying course (which is how I got involved), made a good stab at it. She used models and work sheets and a bingo game...

But the college had seemingly long ago given up all aspiration to anything beyond "getting the learners through". The lesson plan was resolutely focused on drilling learners for the test. A third of the time was devoted to recapitulating how to calculate area (about 8-year-old stuff I think) before moving on to the volume of rectangular and triangular prisms...

The observing tutors made some useful and ingenious suggestions about how she could improve her lesson and her practice within it. Some of them had not occurred to me, and I was impressed; clearly she is getting great support and she is already an accomplished teacher. She also had lots of ideas of her own.

But they're risky. They're unproven. They creep up on ignorance and lack of skill from behind and ambush it... They may not transfer to the exam situation....

When we do know conclusively on the basis of two or three failures that conventional approaches don't work?


  1. Anonymous7:47 am

    Hi James-
    Two thoughts: a former colleage of mine, in the early days of 'key skills' used to describe the approach as resembling a means of getting a person with an injured leg to climb the stairs by repeatedly smashing them in that leg with a lump of wood.

    On the subject of observing the observers: having young children gives me a reason to read Dr Seuss, and this piece from 'did I ever tell you how lucky you are' is a brilliant commentry on the bizarre world we operate in:

    Oh, the jobs people work at! Out west, near Hawtch-Hawtch,
    there's a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-Watcher. His job is to watch...
    is to keep both eyes on the lazy town bee.
    A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.
    He watched and he watched. But in spite of his watch,
    that bee didn't work any harder. Not mawtch.
    So then somebody said, "Our old bee-watching man
    just isn't bee-watching as hard as he can.
    He ought to be watched by another Hawtch-Hawtcher!
    The thing that we need is a Bee-Watch-Watcher!"
    The Bee-Watch-Watcher watched the Bee-Watcher.
    He didn't watch well. So another Hawtch-Hawtcher
    had to come in as a Watch-Watcher-Watcher!
    And today all the Hawtchers who live in Hawtch-Hawtch
    are watching on Watch-Watcher-Watchering-Watch,
    Watch-Watching the Watcher who's watching that bee.
    You're not a Hawtch-Watcher. You're lucky, you see!

    (but you are a teacher)

    John NZ

  2. Anonymous11:50 am

    when I said some of these same things I was named schizophrenic but what I think is great is learning from the 5 senses including movement to make the whole experience concrete


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