Small groups, simpler timetable, accountability.

I’m in Washington DC at the moment and last week visited the National Air and Space Museum and the fabulous Wright Brothers exhibition. The exhibition offered an example of some excellent pedagogy (well structured investigative narrative, inquiry questions, multiple intelligences etc.) and would make an excellent teaching resource.  I got thinking about what might be the barriers to using this as a resource, and how might they be overcome.

I know that it would have taken my pupils thirty seconds to get round the exhibition and then they’d have been queuing for the Coke machine and looking forward to the coach trip home.  But, what if I could take a really small group that I knew well?  What if this group were used to working outside of a classroom, so that there was none of the hyperactivity and aversion to any kind of ‘work’ that often accompanies the rare trips out of school? What if this group had studied the cross-curricular context of the exhibition prior to the visit and were working towards a project of their own choosing; maybe they were going to be building a plane or selling historical model kits?  If all these ‘ifs’ were possible, how many more spaces outside of the classroom would be opened up as viable learning environments, and what an innovation in education that would be.

These are some thoughts on what might be required to make the above ‘ifs’ possible.

Firstly, teachers need to be responsible, and so accountable, for far fewer pupils.  Last year I was in some senses ‘responsible’ for over four hundred pupils.  In another sense, however, I was not really responsible for any.  I would see my history students for two lots of fifty minutes a week and, even in my capacity as assistant head of year, problems could always be passed on; the burden of responsibility and accountability rested rather informally and without clarity on the combined shoulders of subject teachers, form tutors, heads of year, heads of department, the inclusion team, special needs department and the Head and her assistants.  I suppose I only consistently nurtured, where at all possible, those pupils that I chose to.  And I wasn’t really held to account for any of the nearly four hundred pupils.  Just so long as I didn’t phone for ‘on-call’ too many times.  The only real measure of accountability was the exam results of the twelve A-Level students I taught over two years.  To be responsible and accountable for a group of students, you need that group to be small and to see them for longer than two hours a week.  Form tutors, who are supposed to take a nurturing role, may see their form for only ten minutes each morning, and themselves have a full teaching timetable.  As a teacher I wanted my time to count.  It was infuriating that my time was so thinly spread between so many.

One innovation which might address this problem would be a reshaping of school timetables.  Rather than five or six different lessons and teachers each day, what about timetabling only three longer periods?  For too many of my pupils school passed in a kind of grey blur.  For many it was a question of hanging on unnoticed, not really understanding, for fifty minutes until the next lesson.  Quite apart from the inefficiency of many short lessons, unless there is real collaboration they have the potential to distort reality.  Life is not divided neatly into subjects and knowledge is almost necessarily cross-curricular.  You can’t understand the significance of the Wright Brothers without an understanding of social, cultural and technological history, physics, even some biology (the warped wings the brothers used are modeled on birds), maths, some geography and design technology would help.  It is not that I’m against specialisation, but specific subject knowledge, skills and understanding could be taught far more effectively, particularly at Key Stage Three, through the kind of cross-curricular ‘projects’ that are commonly seen in primary schools.

We cannot teach in schools everything that an educated citizen should know.  Let’s ensure, therefore, that our pupils learn how to learn.  There are key skills required for this.  We could efficiently teach, for example, how to collect data, analyse, observe anomalies or bias and evaluate, in a cross-curricular environment.  Moreover, if we accept the importance of learning how to learn, we should acknowledge the unrivaled importance of literacy and numeracy.  Within a simplified timetable there should be an uncompromising commitment to ensuring pupils achieve a minimum standard in literacy and numeracy before progressing.  Without them access to other subject areas is impossible, or, if it is possible (I have seen some excellent ideas for EAL History teaching for example), then it is unmanageable.  Even if it is both possible and practically manageable, ultimately, I would suggest, it is unwise to ignore the central importance of competency in words and numbers.  However many levers to pull, buttons to press and pictures to look at, it would have been impossible to understand the Wright Brothers exhibition if you couldn’t read.

The benefits of a simplified timetable include the fact that it is flexible.  Getting out of school, and making use of rich learning experiences available beyond the classroom walls, should be easy.  The biggest obstacle preventing me from taking a class on a trip was the difficulty of arranging cover.  Indeed, out of school visits, for this reason, seemed to be positively discouraged.  That it is so difficult to take kids out of school doesn’t make sense on so many levels.  The time, money and energy dedicated to ‘bringing a subject to life’ in a classroom, the efforts to make teaching ‘relevant’ and link schools to the community, appear almost utterly futile when you think what could be achieved if it was just a little easier to get out of school for a bit.  Not only should it be easier to take pupils out of school, but it should be easier to bring other teachers into school.  We should recognise that there are far more people that can teach, that have skills or knowledge to offer to young people, than are teachers.  No, not everybody can teach a specific academic subject and not everybody can teach in a traditional classroom environment.  However at every school’s doorstep there are parents and employees and enthusiasts whose talents could be utilised if only the right structure was in place to facilitate it. 

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3 thoughts on “Small groups, simpler timetable, accountability.”

  1. A visit to the National Gallery of Art yesterday reinforced the ideas above.

    I am convinced that it is vital that schools start to access the resources of the community far more fully. On a basic economic level it is crazy that there exist govt. funded facilities such as world class museums and galleries (or even locally subsidised community museums etc.) and that schools should not make more use of them.

    All manner of community resources could be exploited more fully, but the National Gallery reminded me of the importance of Art in the curriculum. The value of getting out of school to visit art galleries, should be recognised. It is not just about the importance of a rounded Renaissance (Enlightenment?) education and the way that Art sheds light on the human condition. The potential to use galleries and their contents as stimulus or ‘hooks’ to all manner of subjects areas and investigations should be obvious.

    This leads me to another point: the importance of context and the value of a kind of informal, absorbed learning. The example I use is in the study of my subject, History. To have a ‘sense’ of historical time periods is essential. What I mean is that when I formally ‘learnt’ about the Medieval period, I already had a sense (from stories and pictures mostly) of what this period might include and what were probably anomalies. For example, I’d be thinking in terms of Knights in Armour not Cowboys. It is this kind of foundation that is, bluntly, more often provided by a middle class home, with books, that visit museums etc. I was amazed as a teacher by the number of pupils who in KS3 could not undertake basic chronology exercises – that chariots might come before the steam engine, for example. (This is not an exageration). The responsibility for this kind of foundation traditionally, and probably properly, rests with the parents. But if this isn’t provided, I suggest schools/society has a duty to try. It is perhaps here that we may be able to make the biggest impact on social justice, rather than gerrymandering selection at the other end of the education system. Moreover it is the kind of intervention (unlike certain inclusion policies) that will benefit all. To recognise the importance of this kind of learning (of the importance of context, absorbed/informal learning) probaly requires many of the suggestions outlined above – an education system that is pupil focused and accomodates flexible timetabling and out of school visits.

  2. Simplified and flexible timetabling can be seen as an effective way of managing teaching resources, including teachers. I read somewhere an article questionning whether class sizes really contribute to improved results, or at least whether reducing class sizes much below thirty has any discernable effect. As far as I remember the article, the statistics given contradicted the instinct of most teachers that the smaller the class the better the learning.

    If we think about it in terms of effectively deploying resources, many classes don’t need to be small. Teaching a particular subject often requires a demonstration of some sort, a period of lecturing or silent reading or other learning method that can equally constructively be undertaken with a large number of students. I particularly enjoyed using a style of dramatic, story-telling teaching that was actually enhanced when the class was large.

    However, this must be followed up with an element of coaching that simply cannot occur in large classes. Theodore Sizer talks about coaching in Horace’s Compromise. He says that whilst PE teachers are often derided for their pedagogy, or lack of it, they may actually be closer to an effective teaching method than others. Coaching is the process of trial-error-correction, whereby an activity is undertaken, the mistakes corrected and the activity repeated. It is effective and obvious and simple as a teaching method. I observed the simplicity of this training at Mike Moses’ martial arts gym, but Ted Sizer talks about its application to writing an essay. Any A-Level teacher will surely agree that the benefits of sitting down and working through a handed-in essay, in order for it to be improved, are easily worth the time it takes. The sad fact is that there simply is not the time within exisiting school structures to effectively coach, in this manner, every pupil from the moment they join the school in year 7. This is a scandal. Coaching in this manner is the principal way that clarity of self expression, of argument and analysis is perfected.

    The issues raised here include the necissity for teachers to be principally responsible and accountable for a small group of pupils and the need for flexible timetables. I think the issue of coaching as a positive model of learning has some links with the benefits of an apprenticeship as an approach to education.

  3. For me, the ‘scandal’ is that several million people exist outside our schools without an invitation to help in them and several thousand are not only talented educators, albeit untrained, but also available and willing to do some coaching. I include retired and unemployed people who have real life experiences/stories and desire to find meaning in their daytime activities. (There is also a growing pool of professionals who want variety in their working week and whose employers believe retention includes offering volunteering opportunities.) The problem of contemporary schooling may be less what we are trying to teach than how we are trying to teach it. With motivated learners, like me when I did my football reffing course, or even when I attended lectures at university, you can pack a room with them all listening attentively to a lecturer. If learners are not motivated, because they have been coerced rather than invited, you’re going to have to fight for their attention. For most of us, that’s exhausting. There aren’t enough of us who can manage to get mainly positive outcomes with a group of coerced teenagers. There are many more of us, though, who can competently coach 1:1. 1:1 allows a learner to take risks and ‘fall over’ without public humiliation; it’s a much more caring relationship. If it’s something the coach is passionate about, like me marvelling at big-game reffing decisions, make that 1:3/4. The coaching relationship allows the learner voice to be not just heard but listened to. ‘What did you think about that one, Shane? You haven’t said yet.’ That’s the special bit, I think , the bit mass schooling has so far failed to provide. Getting every child to talk about what they’re learning. Not letting any spend a whole lesson, or worse still a whole day, without being asked for their comment. We shouldn’t allow kids to go down in our care. Air traffic controllers aren’t happy with anything less than 100%. Why should we be as educators?

    Jacob is right to suggest that coaching is a particularly effective form of teaching – it’s guided experiential learning. I don’t think its absence from most schooling is a problem strictly of ‘time within existing school structures’. It’s not mainly to do with the length of term, day or lesson. It’s more to do with our narrow definition of who we think is competent to educate our children. With considered systems of recruitment, vetting, basic training (child engagement, protection, planning, etc.) and monitoring, why can’t thousands more members of our communities be involved routinely in coaching our children? Learning skills, so crucial to success in tests and working life, need an attitude of trial-and-error and this needs an atmosphere of trust. Neither is typically found in classrooms, where peer influence tends to dominate. Unless/until we get more members of the community into our schooling we will continue to battle with negative peer influence, boredom and waste. Pupils engage naturally with real people, real stories. Every adult has real stories. But most school teachers, working 1:25+ at a time, can’t get close enough to share them.

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