Global warming – bring it on!

Despite the lovely weather, I’ve been spending much of the last few days marking G.C.S.E. coursework, to get it out of the way before my wife also finishes for Easter, today. And yes, sadly I have been spending a fair bit of time scanning the blogs too. At least I can claim a greater purpose for that on this occasion, but more of that another time.

Having read few blogs from teachers of Maths, English and other important subjects, I was quietly congratulating myself on teaching a relatively straightforward one like Geography. Compared with the abstraction of the various theories of how to teach children to read and so forth, Geography really seems quite unencumbered and plain sailing. After all, despite the sociology-type projects, it’s still largely about knowledge – and of something relatively tangible at that: the world about is. Unlike say, a mathematician or linguist, I can easily stick a photo of something up on the screen at the start of the lesson and in effect say, “Understand that!”

Though contentious, Robert Plomin’s work on heritability seems to confirm this experience. His findings suggested that subjects such as the humanities have a lower heritable component than those that depend on more abstract principles such as the rules of grammar. It certainly seems plausible to me that tangible, real world phenomena – of which children might conceivably have some prior experience – give us a bit of a head start. Perhaps even over history, whose main vector – time – is equally abstract in some ways. I suppose the use of artefacts and source documents is one way round this. It also seems true that it is the abstractions, even in Geography, that children struggle with; that’s not really surprising.

I’ve also just finished reading Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths About Education, which I found to be an impressive justification of the call to teach knowledge, and which has had me thinking about the place of Fact in teaching.

So it would seem I have life relatively easy. But then it came to marking the coursework. Discretion prevents me saying anything too specific, but suffice it to say that the provisional marks fully support my knowledge of the pupils concerned over the past two years, in almost every case.

Thanks to the wonders of the options system, I have been teaching a ‘set’ whose performance regularly covered every grade from A* to U, all in the same lessons. This was consistent with my impression of these children based on years of prior experience of teaching exam classes. We all know that the advised method of dealing with this situation is to differentiate like mad, but this presented me with a problem that I’ll elaborate on in a moment.  However, the situation was compounded by the fact that those same pupils had minimum target grades, with one exception, lying in the range A* to C – despite the fact that there is more change of the rocks melting in the sun than some of those targets being met.

Now what is one to do in such a situation? For a start, how does one differentiate facts? I know that facts, knowledge and understanding aren’t the same thing, but the point still stands, Geography depends on knowing (and applying) a lot of factual information. Either you know it or you don’t – for all that you can be selective over which facts, or how many you introduce. It’s not like skills that you can do to varying degrees of competence. In the end, getting an A* grade depends on knowing a lot of stuff.

When it came to fieldwork, on which the controlled assessment depended, then we all had a look at pretty much the same coastal features and either understood them or not. When it came to write-up time, I could only stipulate the same procedure for all – as after all, that is the one they all had to follow. Surprise, surprise, those who followed it closely did indeed end up with high grades, while those who didn’t – or couldn’t – did not. Obviously, in controlled assessments, the scope for  teacher intervention is NIL. And rightly so – this is, after all the logical conclusion of my other exercise when I sprang brain-only assessments unannounced on lower school pupils. An exam should indeed be a test solely of what the individual can do unassisted.

So I now have the prospect of a class, a significant number of whom have not hit their minimum target for the coursework component, and now have an uphill task ahead during the written exams, if they are to meet their targets (and, of course, mine…). Do I tell them the grades or not? This despite the fact that virtually all have accounted for themselves as I expected from knowing them for two years or more.  Just who is the better judge of these individuals – me, or a number-crunching machine? It strikes me that this could be an entirely manufactured problem and one that if I don’t manage it carefully could discourage more pupils than it does the opposite.

There’s a further twist: when one is teaching a class of this sort, an issue that normally remains in the background jumps out to ambush you. With some pupils in the class very capable of getting A* grades, it would be deeply irresponsible not to provide them with the teaching they need to reach them. Despite differentiation (which as I said is not so easy when there’s a specified body of fact to cover), one inevitably ends up teaching ‘high’. In fact, given the target grades of the others, that is precisely the right strategy, as in theory, they aren’t so far behind in any case. This is what I did, even though the material was more complex than some of the pupils could sometimes handle. (Yes, the intervention did kick in at that point). If I ‘taught down’, not only did I risk those A* pupils, but I ended up teaching at a lower level than the targets said the other pupils could achieve too. What to do?

As I mentioned before, pupils often report that understanding geographical information during a lesson is not a problem – there may be a lot of it, but much is fairly straightforward, until you get into the underpinning theoretical principles (which we do need to do). Even many of the less able pupils proved able enough to complete decent class work, the main impediment for some indeed being their written skills. But there is also no getting away from that. What seems more of a problem is long-term retention, despite the usual testing regime, and when the immediate feedback from the student is positive, it makes judging the success of any strategy all the more difficult. This seems to be a fundamental cognitive problem, and one that maybe the teacher has limited ability to remedy. I think we have to accept that some students are never going to achieve high grades – and wishfully inflating their targets isn’t going to change that fact.

I’m still trying to formulate a specific conclusion to this dilemma, so this post will end a little open-ended. One thing I am not questioning is the value of teaching knowledge; Ms.  Christodoulou’s book has served to reinforce my prior belief that only through knowledge can understanding and skills develop. (Or is that confirmation bias again?)

The niggling doubt in my mind at present more concerns the pernicious effects that learning targets can have on teaching  – all the more so when they are of dubious accuracy or relevance. One thing it strikes me we should not do with targets is tell those to whom they apply, what they are.

Or maybe the only answer is more global warming, then perhaps those rocks will melt after all.

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