The Joy of Geek

That is what’s being a geek is, it’s not just having an interest. It’s not going to an observatory once and then being pleasantly surprised you’re not bored! It’s not being able to tell a Harley Davidson motor bike from a not-a-Harley-Davidson-motor-bike. It’s knowing as much as you can possibly know about a thing and being at least a bit weird about it.

Why are you so cross?

Because those of us who are geeks, ok, real geeks, who earned our geekhood at school through sweat and loneliness and wedgies will no longer stand idly by and watch our geekly identity taken from us by people who think geekhood is nothing more than wearing cute glasses and an asymmetric fringe! Particularly not when they are the very people who gave us the wedgies at school!

John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

I did a rash thing recently.

I was doing a revision lesson with some sixth formers. I needed some exam questions on a topic, but knew that there weren’t any spare questions from our exam board; I collate the mock (sorry, internal) exams, and had used up the good questions there. There were some nice questions from other exam boards, but the content in the question was ever so slightly different.

(In the unlikely event that anyone’s interested, they were questions about gravitational fields. My group do a specification where they need to know about forces, others need to know about forces and energy. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have much to do with the point of this story.)

I’ve been on the exam prep training. I know that the prudent thing to do is to focus on What’s Going To Come Up. Preferably as a spreadsheet. Ideally with traffic light ratings. These questions wouldn’t have fitted on that spreadsheet, and I shouldn’t have done them. The rash thing I did was to teach my class how to do them.

It didn’t take long; it was basically joining up some things they did know with some ideas they had learned in A level maths. The class got the point quickly, and were happy enough answering the questions. I’m sure that the exercise made them better at doing physics. The trouble is that I know that, if pressed, I would have struggled to justify teaching it… because it didn’t directly move them on a grade.

There seems to be a lot of sadness in the teaching blogosphere at the moment. I wonder if some of that is because the dominant model in English schools at the moment involves taking a checklist and gradually ticking off all the points on it. By looking so hard at the boxes on the checklist, it sometimes feels like the subject behind the checklist has vanished from view. If so, that’s a loss.

One of the reasons that I do what I do is because of all the teachers I encountered when little who were able to be unashamedly, geekily enthusiastic about ideas. The content wasn’t the important bit; I remember people corresponding with Antarctic research bases, discussing tactical voting, crushes on Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre (never understood that one myself), contaminating civic fountains, John Wyndham’s novels, why cold fusion was almost certainly a flop… None of it was on an examinable syllabus, all of it mattered to someone.

There’s no doubt in my mind that schools are more efficient at ensuring that students leave with a useful set of qualifications than they were (ahem) years ago. That’s a good thing, in that it opens doors for people. If an unceasing quest to improve this efficiency leads to squeezing out anything that doesn’t have a certifiable payoff, that’s a problem, for me anyway. If every minute of 5 years at secondary school is really needed to prepare students for a reasonable range of GCSEs, we’re probably doing something wrong.

Partly, I must to admit, I like geeky enthusiasm because that sort of teaching is fun. But also, students need to experience the culture where the Joy of Geek is celebrated, and they can maybe start to recognise where theirs is.

I still wouldn’t dare do it if a manager was watching. They might give me a wedgie.

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Stockholm

The Royal Palace, Stockholm, Sweden. (Abhijeet Vardhan)

 

Stockholm syndrome is a name given to the way that hostages end up having sympathy and empathy for their captors.  In a teeny-tiny way, I think I’m going through something like it at school.

I never really got on with the GCSE science courses as they were from 2006 onwards.  They were made of little modules that had to stand independently, so ideas never really linked up.  Each module only really had one way of sequencing the ideas that made any sense at all.  You pretty much had to teach each module on the basis of spending one lesson on each line of the specification, then moving on to the next line.  Then, every 12 lines or so, you did a module test and moved on to something different.  All the published textbooks and schemes of work did the same sort of thing.  It was a bit dull, to be honest.

Anyway, those GCSEs are on the way out; the current year 10s will be the last cohort to do them.  We don’t know quite what’s replacing them yet, because the new specifications haven’t been finally approved.  That’s a bit of a challenge if you teach a 3 year GCSE course.  Technically, we’re teaching our year 9s a course that doesn’t exist yet.  It could be taken as a huge opportunity for freedom.  We could teach anything; as long as the choices are sensible, it’s bound to come in useful.

What we’ve ended up doing is taking the first few pages of the draft specification, spending one lesson on each line of the specification, then moving on to the next line.  Then, every 12 lines or so, doing a module test and moving on to something different.

That’s not the problem. Neither is it really a problem that the sample resources I’ve seen publishers produce look like they are sticking to the same old model.

The problem is that I’m secretly quite glad about that.  Having taught in this way for so long, the idea of making a judgement about what matters, what might be worth teaching is pretty scary.  Not being able to confidently say to my class “this is the content you need to know to get this grade” leaves me feeling a bit naked, however much I used to hate saying that.

For a while now, I’ve felt my teaching trapped into doing things I didn’t like/believe in.  Now some of those things have been taken away, and I sort of want them back.

 

 

Good Intentions

Path Through The Forest

Path Through The Forest by George Hodan

If you’re a teacher, it’s definitely not cheating to know what is in the exam board’s specification for the courses you teach.  In fact, it’s pretty unprofessional not to know.  Similarly, it’s right and proper to have a working knowledge of the recent past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports.  Whilst this might need some processing before sharing with classes, it’s important that they have access to that information as well.

We all want pupils to do as well as they can.  If there are patterns in the exam questions and expected answers, it will help them achieve if they are aware of these.  If there are stock phrases, mnemonics or sentence starters that will help them to scaffold their thinking, those will help them not lose marks by missing out anything important.

Some pupils find the memorisation difficult.  It will help them to have a final reminder just before they go into the exam space.  That’s fine, if their teachers organise a final briefing for them at breakfast / lunch.  Besides, it gives an opportunity to make sure that they have had a healthy meal, and are in a positive frame of mind before an exam.  Like a coach with a team just before an important match.

So far, so good.

But what if it’s not a traditional exam, but a controlled assessment?  One which is spread out over several lessons, maybe several weeks of lessons?  One where the questions are often not just similar each year, but identical?

It’s right and proper to have a working knowledge of the recent assessments, mark schemes and examiners’ reports.  Whilst this might need some processing before sharing with classes, it’s important that they have access to the allowed parts of that information as well.

We all want pupils to do as well as they can.  If there are patterns in the questions and expected answers, it will help them achieve if they are aware of these.  If there are stock phrases, mnemonics or sentence starters that will help them to scaffold their thinking, those will help them not lose marks by missing out anything important.

Some pupils find the memorisation difficult.  It will help them to have a final reminder just before they go into the controlled space.  That’s fine, if their teachers organise a final briefing for them at breakfast / lunch.  Besides, it gives an opportunity to make sure that they have had a healthy meal, and are in a positive frame of mind before writing up the assessment.  Like a coach with a team just before an important match.

Some of this is OK, some of it isn’t, really

A part of what teachers and schools do is about maximising the return (in terms of exam grades) from a given amount of learning.  That’s not an impulse to be despised, especially if it opens doors for young people that would otherwise be closed.  It’s not cheating, as such- that is a different, much murkier kettle of fish.  But a lot of “good practice” that gets shared is about working out ways of completing assessed tasks that are easier for pupils to do.  Some of these probably fall within the intentions of the task designers, but some don’t.  And it’s hard to talk about the difference, because it’s all done from the very best of intentions.

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Every Big Helps

Mobile phone chargers: not big amounts of energy

[https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/ec/Nokia_mobile_phone_charging.jpg/274px-Nokia_mobile_phone_charging.jpg]

Quick bit of Physics:

If you haven’t read David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air, go and do it now.  It’s great.  Partly because it’s about something important- keeping the lights (and everything else) on for future generations.  Also, it’s a really good example of something that physicists are trained to be good at; working out which factors actually matter when you are trying to solve a problem, and which ones you can quickly discard.

MacKay calls the concept “Every Big Helps“.  For example, think about mobile phone chargers left on standby.  Or rather, don’t.  Yes, there are lots of them, but the power wasted by each one is small.  Even if you multiply by the number of phones in the UK, it will still be a small total.  Better not to waste that energy, but it’s a tiny amount compared with (say) the energy consumed by cars.

I’ve been reminded of this by a couple of experiences at school in the last week.  One was a staff meeting about school policy changes for next year; things like marking and documenting differentiation.  I can’t say that the changes are bad- though a marking policy that is going to be applied and monitored across every subject is bound to be a bit clunky.  Where it bothers me is when I look at the end-of-year exams I have just marked.

The pattern is one that I suspect most teachers will have experienced.  A proportion of the group have clearly taken on board the ideas we have worked through together this year; I recognise the phrases and patterns; even the mistakes are from slightly mis-applying things we did in class.  Another proportion of the group haven’t, and have floundered.  Very few of the papers- even from those who have done well- show much sign of the school-wide tips for reading and answering exam questions that they are meant to have been practicing in every subject all year.

There are big things I can do that would help these pupils a lot.  Making sure that they always get the key facts and ideas right.  Ensuring that they check that what they write actually matches the question they are answering.  A goodish chunk of the challenge will be making sure that these pupils are on-task more of the time, and completing more work.  And I’ll continue to do what I can to do these.  But it’s about to get a little bit harder, because a few more little things have been put in the way of the big things.  And it’s every big that helps.

Workload- a different name for the problem?

(SCENE: Prehistoric Earth.  Ford and Arthur have been stuck for two years.)

Arthur:  Have you got an answer?

Ford: No, but I’ve got a different name for the problem!

(The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Seventh)

Teacher workload has been a problem for more than two years, but discussion of it has become more intense recently.  The government has plans, the opposition has plans, and this is all fine as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, stories like the one shared by Debra Kidd aren’t that unusual.

Reducing the number of forms and spreadsheets flying around would help… a bit.  I’m not sure that it would get the job down to something that could really be done honestly.  So- for a bit of fun during the holidays- let’s give the workload problem a different name- If we assume that paying teachers a salary buys a certain amount of time, what can they get done in that time?

Some assumptions

My physics teacher nature is going to start to show here.  I’m going to make some assumptions, but I don’t think they’re crazy, and I don’t think that changing them much affects the answer much.

Assumption 1: A full time, main scale teacher teaches 21 hours of lessons per week.

Assumption 2: There aren’t any repeat lessons (same content to 2 or more equivalent classes- clearly that saves some planning time, but I don’t have that on my timetable, so there).

Assumption 3: There are lots of things that teachers do that aren’t planning, teaching or marking, and they’re important.  I’m not going to try to put numbers on the time for them, because they’re too variable.

What if a teacher has 30 minutes to plan and mark for each hour of teaching?

Time on planning, teaching and marking = 21 x 1.5 = 31.5 hours per week, so there’s definitely time for being a form tutor, duties, meetings and other things.

30 minutes for planning and marking is going to be tight.  I really like the Every Book, Every Lesson approach to marking, and it does make it possible to give meaningful feedback to a whole class with 15 minutes of marking.  That leaves 15 minutes to plan a lesson.  That doesn’t feel like enough.  I could get my head around a pre-planned lesson in that time (read it, understand it, decide if I need to tweak any of the explanations or references to make them work for my class), but that would be about it.

What if a teacher has 60 minutes to plan and mark for each hour of teaching?

Time on planning, teaching and marking = 21 x 2 = 42 hours per week, which is getting a bit high; remember that there are other core things to add.

If we stick with 15 minutes of marking, that leaves 45 minutes to plan.  That should be enough to think about the lesson objectives, select appropriate resources, and put them together in a lesson.  It probably isn’t enough time to create substantial new resources, or write a lesson plan with enough detail for someone else to follow.

Conclusions?

Firstly, the sweet spot for lesson related work looks like it is somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes per lesson.  The reality is that there are plenty of schools where the baseline expectations of teachers don’t fit into 1 hour per lesson.  The result is the scenario described by Andrew Old as The Job that Never Ends:

Of course, the (very) obvious explanation is that nobody, and I mean nobody, does the job to the letter.

Essentially, teachers do what they can off the list of essential jobs, and hope that the things left undone won’t lead to too much trouble.  That’s not fair on pupils (who can’t rely on what they will get) or conscientious teachers (who end up exhausted and guilty).

Secondly, the “30 minutes per lesson” scenario reminds me a lot of what I experienced as a pupil in the late 1980s.  Most academic subjects were taught from published resources, without much customisation.  Work was marked regularly, but written feedback was brief.

Finally, if teachers are really going to take control of their workload, the place where that has to happen has to be the way we approach planning and marking.  Streamlining the peripheral work can only achieve so much.  I don’t have an answer to the Workload Problem.  I do have a different name for it:

“If I’ve got 45 minutes per lesson to plan and mark, what can I do with that time?”

Any ideas?